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Preliminary Research - Childhood Lead Exposure Linked to Crime in Adulthood

 

Lead Exposure and Crime in Australia

Using data from the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research and the NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA), we examined the correlations between lead-in-air emissions and crime rates with 20- and 21-year time lags at seven sites in NSW.

All seven sites showed that higher levels of airborne lead resulted in higher assault rates 20 to 21 years later. Areas with higher lead levels tended to show stronger relationships.

The two graphs below show the strongest two relationships from the seven sites we investigated: Boolaroo (top) and Earlwood (bottom).

Relationship between lead particulates (μg per cubic metre) and total assault rate per 100,000 residents (21 year lag) for Boolaroo, NSW. Data points are labelled as follows: year lead was measured:year crime was measured.

While the sites have different sources (lead smelter emissions at Boolaroo, and leaded petrol emissions at Earlwood, Sydney) the pattern remains the same: the highest crime rates are associated with the highest levels of lead in the air.

Relationship between lead particulates (μg per cubic metre) and total assault rate per 100,000 residents (20 year lag) for Earlwood. Data points are labelled as follows: year lead was measured:year crime was measured.

A time lag of around 20 years is theoretically meaningful and expected. The propensity to commit an act of violence peaks between the ages of 15 and 24 – this is known in criminology as the age-crime curve. An increase in present period crime rates therefore reflect a cohort of young adults who were exposed to higher levels of lead emissions as children and are now ageing into the peak period of the age-crime curve.

The findings are consistent with a 2012 study of air lead emissions and assault records across six cities in the United States. The researchers showed that assault records and petrol lead emissions were highly correlated over a 35-year period, even after adjusting for poverty and other characteristics.

The levels of exposures at which adverse effects are seen are very low – in the range of 10 to 100 ppb (parts per billion), which are comparable to the concentrations of antipsychotic drugs used to alter behaviours.

Therefore, it is plausible that neurotoxic contaminants, such as lead, can alter behaviours at very low levels, in the same way pharmaceutical drugs can work to alter social behaviours at similar concentrations.

So while there has never been a detailed study examining whether or not lead exposure in Australians is linked with criminal behaviours, our preliminary data suggests these factors are strongly linked.

In the coming months we will be carefully studying the relationship between historical emissions of lead to the environment and later life crime.

Editor's note:  This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article. We advise readers that these are preliminary findings,with more research to come.  We also know from other research that crime is related to  many factors - education, employment, drug use, gun policies and more.  One commentator on the above article on The Conversation points out that Boolaroo has a small population of 1000 people, so the numbers represented in the graph are actually quite small.  Nevertheless, this article is re-published as an area of interest for parents, with the expectation that there will be more findings to report in the future.

* Mark Taylor is a Professor in Environmental Science at Macquarie University, Bruce Lanphear is Professor of Children's Environmental Health at Simon Fraser University, Damien Gore is Associate Professor in Environmental Science at Macquarie University, Miriam Forbes is PhD Candidate, Psychology Tutor, Research Assistant at Macquarie University, Sammy Zahran is Associate Professor at Colorado State University.
For Disclosure Statements, please visit the original article published on The Conversation.

Image from Flickr: Frank de Kleine
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