Violent crime and leaded gasoline: An elemental link?


For twenty years, people have been arguing over what produced a global drop in violent crime through the 1990s and early 2000s. Some thought poverty-reduction and education. Others said better policing or more jails. But now one writer says the key factor was the rise and fall of leaded gasoline. We find out why more and more researchers think the switch to unleaded gasoline was the best thing we ever did to fight violent crime.

Violent crime and leaded gasoline: Reporter Kevin Drum

That was the former mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani, boasting about the dramatic decline in crime in the city during his tenure. The numbers back him up. After skyrocketing in the early 90's, crime rates did drop in New York City and by 2010, violent crime in the Big Apple was down about seventy-five percent. But it's not as if violent criminals went somewhere else. Cities across the U.S., Canada, even Europe all experienced similar drops in violence. New research questions if the "broken window" theory had that much to do with it. Perhaps the real cause of violent crime is more... elemental.

With more on this we were joined by Kevin Drum. He is a staff writer for Mother Jones magazine and he joins us from Irvine, California.

Violent crime and leaded gasoline: International Lead Association

We contacted the International Lead Association for its perspective on this story. No one was available to comment, but it did direct us to this statement on their website.

"Crime is of concern to all of us, so the idea that lead in gasoline may provide both a simple explanation and a solution to this problem is a compelling one. Currently however, none of the authoritative reviews into this subject have conclusively linked lead exposure to criminal behaviour, so further research is still needed."

Violent crime and leaded gasoline: Dianne Saxe

Now, whether lead is a criminal element, it's still one you want to avoid. Despite efforts to protect Canadians from exposure, leaded gasoline is not just an historical footnote. To tell us more, we were joined by Dianne Saxe, one of Canada's top environmental lawyers. She was in Toronto.

Violent crime and leaded gasoline: Government Statement

We invited Health Canada to respond to the concerns about lead. In a statement it said the government has developed many regulations and guidelines to reduce lead in cosmetics, drinking water, food, natural health and drug products, tobacco, industrial releases, and other sources such as soil and air. Also, Health Canada recently assessed the current scientific information on lead, and health effects of lead are occurring at lower levels than previously thought. It is now working on updating guidelines for soil quality and drinking water quality for lead, and revising blood lead guidance for health providers and public health officials.

Environment Canada also sent us a statement saying that recent reporting shows leaded fuel use in competition vehicles represents only three-thousandths of a percent of total gasoline use in Canada.

This segment was produced by The Current's Shannon Higgins.

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