A one-time school project gone terribly, terribly wrong.

28 May 2008

Lead Exposure Limits--A Magic Bullet for Criminal Behaviour?

This story seems to have been rushed to the wires rather prematurely.

I sourced it from Bloomberg, but you can find it on a myriad of other sites, with the same breathless headlines: "Lead Link Found to Criminal Behaviour," or similar.

The story says a recent study found a link between early lead exposure and criminal behaviour. This isn't necessarily what the scientists involved appear to be saying, from the actual quotes.

Metro ain't no kinda scientist, but he can read print:
Dietrich and his colleagues began the research by recruiting pregnant women in inner-city Cincinnati from 1979- 1984. The researchers measured the lead in the blood of the women during pregnancy and of their children throughout their youth.


Most of the families lived in rental housing or public housing projects where lead paint often flaked off the walls, joining the dust on the floor.
So wouldn't the headline more properly read "Inner-City Youth Who Grow Up In Social Housing More Likely to Commit Crime: Study"?

Perhaps then it wouldn't be a story.

To be fair, the study suggests that some of the brain structures whose development is retarded are those that control impulse.

But impulse control is a problem for all social strata. It's just that middle-class folks can usually buy that thing they suddenly have an impulse to acquire. Kids who grow up in the projects may not have that option.

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At 3:14 p.m., Anonymous Anonymous said...

For a story about a similar lapse in logic, check out my blog

YKWIA (you know who I am)

At 1:14 p.m., Blogger Pugs said...

I agree with your observations and actually think your suggestions for new headlines are brilliant and quite accurate at the very least.

At 10:23 a.m., Blogger Vlad the Impala said...

Back in the mists of time (three or four years ago) I was on a mailing list with a number of professional academics, one of whom would frequently make the point that his research repeatedly showed that the single biggest predictor of criminal behaviour was not socio-economic status, or religion, or parenting, or the absence of a father-figure, but lead exposure. It was a strikingly large effect.

Naturally, and for their own reasons, people on both the left and the right refused to accept his data. Right-wingers wanted to blame drugs and the breakdown of the family, while left-wingers wanted to blame poverty and racism. But since they couldn't find any actual flaws in his data, they simply ignored him.

As far as I can tell from a 30 second google search, the link between pollutants and criminal behaviour is seriously under-studied, but what few studies there consistently find the same links between lead, changes to the brain, and criminal behaviour. e.g. this study.

And crime rates seem to follow the introduction of, and banning of, leaded petrol with a 22 year lag: just long enough for the next generation to grow up without their brains being poisoned.

To me, it makes sense. Knowing how horribly toxic even small amounts of lead is, I don't find it the least bit incredible that widespread lead poisoning could lead to generations of people with little impulse control, poor anger management, irrational behaviour patterns and other traits linked to criminal behaviour.

At 11:02 a.m., Blogger Keith said...

Well, aren't you just the angel of truth! Even if there is a microliter of truth per decisentence, it is worth careful consideration on the "lead induced mental trauma" story. Don't be critical just to make yourself look wise. What if it's true?


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