All across the major cities in America, the violent crime rate shot up dramatically beginning in the 1960s, from 150 violent crimes per 100,000 people in 1960 to a peak of 750 violent crimes per 100,000 people in 1990 - a shocking four-fold increase. Then, after 1990, violent crime started falling, to under 450 as of 2009, and it's still falling.
Why? Sociologists and economists have come up with a number of answers, ranging from "broken windows" to the economy to the rise of crack cocaine, and none of those explanations have held up under scrutiny. The explanations make sense, but the data simply doesn't fit. As Kevin Drum at Mother Jones detailed recently, though "Experts often suggest that crime resembles an epidemic. But what kind?"
Thinking of an epidemic, researchers often use as a rule of thumb, "If it travels along major transportation routes its microbial. If it spreads out like a fan, its an arthropod. If its everywhere, all at once, its a molecule." As Drum asks rhetorically, "What molecule could be responsible for a steep and sudden decline in violent crime? Well, here’s one possibility: Pb(CH2CH3)4."
That's tetraethyllead, the lead that was used in gasoline. Although we all think of childhood lead exposure resulting from paint - more on that in a minute - the primary cause of lead exposure since World War II was really leaded gasoline. "Lead emissions from tailpipes rose steadily from the early ’40s through the early ’70s, nearly quadrupling over that period." As other researchers have concluded, "if you add a lag time of 23 years, lead emissions from automobiles explain 90 percent of the variation in violent crime in America. Toddlers who ingested high levels of lead in the ’40s and ’50s really were more likely to become violent criminals in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s."
It sounds crazy, but there's ample evidence of it, from specific lead levels that can still be tested in urban neighborhoods, particularly the poorest neighborhoods, to indisputable medical evidence that there is no safe level of lead exposure. It is always toxic in every amount. Once a kid is exposed to a contaminated source, like paint, it will affect their brain, reducing IQ and, perhaps even more importantly as it relates to crime, injuring the prefrontal cortex, thereby hindering impulse control and reasoning abilities. Thankfully, lead in gasoline has been slowly reduced since 1972, and finally banned in 1996.
But let's get back to paint. PBS recently posted an excellent story on the dedicated efforts by Herbert Needleman, a child psychiatrist, to discover and to expose the dangers of lead contamination in paints, particularly the paints used on walls in homes. Unfortunately, as PBS notes, although lead paint has been banned since 1978, "more than 38 million homes in the United States contain deteriorating lead painted walls. Landlords refuse to abate these homes because it costs so much money; the renting parents have neither the funds nor access to safer housing elsewhere." The CDC has estimated that over 300,000 children under the age of five have high enough levels of lead in their blood to be diagnosed with lead poisoning.
Pennsylvania has a serious lead poisoning problems. As Nan Feyler, chief of staff for the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, wrote in an editorial:
At the newer level recently adopted by the CDC - 5 micrograms per deciliter of blood, down from 10 - roughly 13,000 more Pennsylvania children, an increase of 400 percent, would have been considered lead-poisoned in 2011, according to statistics for counties and selected cities compiled for the state Department of Health's Childhood Lead Surveillance Program's annual report. That's a total of 4,900 children in Philadelphia, 85 in Bucks County, 188 in Chester County, 580 in Delaware County, and 466 in Montgomery County.
Despite the federal and state bans on lead paint, the only thing that’s made a difference in those past forty years has been the lawsuits filed against landlords, contractors, and paint companies that failed to follow the law, thereby exposing children to dangerous levels of lead. To its enormous credit, Philadelphia took action to compel better inspections and remediation of lead, with a prevention program and a law that went into force last December. Despite loud complaints from landlords too cheap to have their own properties checked for lead, in Philadelphia now:
The law states that upon turnover, before renting any house or apartment built before 1978, to new tenants with children aged 6 years and younger, the landlord must:
certify the property is lead safe or lead free
provide the tenant with a copy of a lead safe or lead free certificate, along with other required information
provide the Department of Public Health with a copy of the lead safe or lead free certificate, signed by the tenant
Will all the landlords comply? Almost certainly not, and I don't doubt that cut-rate contractors and inspectors will falsely "certify" properties that they are free from lead when they are certainly not. But it is a step in the right direction and, in time, we'll get the lead out of Philadelphia - and cut the crime rate even further.
For fifty years, The Beasley Firm has stood up for injured people and their families, including children injured by lead contaminated products and paints. If your landlord or the seller of your home didn't properly check for lead, or if you have any doubts, get your property inspected and ask your child's pediatrician to order a blood test for lead. If your child has been diagnosed with lead poisoning, call us for a free, confidential consultation.