If you subscribe to my alt channel, which you should because it’s fun, you may know that I recently spent an afternoon soldering together a vampire lawn flamingo with glowing red eyes. And that activity made me wonder, is the lead in this solder that I’m holding and melting and breathing in making me stupid? Stupider, I mean? And maybe more violent, in the same way that lead in plumbing and wine and paint and gasoline made ancient Romans and Boomers stupider and more violent?
And also, is any of that actually true? Did lead cause the spike in violent crime in the 1990s? Is lead why Boomers believe Fox News and vote for Donald Trump? Or did I just believe it’s true because I have hobbies that may or may not make me more gullible?
First of all, let’s start with the new “news,” which is that lead is absolutely without a doubt very bad for people and in fact its probably even worse than we thought. Last month, a study was published in The Lancet that found exposure to lead causes six times more death due to cardiovascular disease and 80% more cognitive damage than previously thought, putting lead on par with the danger of fine particulate air pollution and much worse than unsafe household drinking water, sanitation, and handwashing. Due to incomplete data, the authors suggest that lead actually might be way worse than even they found. The greatest negative impacts were found in low-income countries and sub-Saharan Africa.
And that’s TODAY, long after we removed most of the lead from gasoline. And it’s not just affecting older generations due to legacy exposure but children, too. A study from 2019 found that depending on where you live, you might be most likely to encounter lead in paint, dust, toys, batteries, electronic waste, utensils, cosmetics, ceramics, “traditional medicine” (snake oil), or all of the above.
It’s even in the soil, which is very relevant if you want to grow a vegetable garden. At MapMyEnvironment.com, you can see a map of soil samples from around the world to see what your local exposure might be, and you can also help out their research by contributing your own samples, depending on where you live.
So we know that lead without a doubt causes lower intelligence, but is that why, say, Boomers are so gullible? That’s a complicated subject, which I kind of touched upon in a video last year: every generation tends to be a little more progressive than the previous generation, and so even though individuals tend to get more liberal as they age, as a generation they always seem more conservative than younger people.
Also, the people who tend to be most hurt by lead are the people who are already most disadvantaged: the poorest people, the people who were living beside the highways where all these cars were blasting their leaded gas fumes, the people in places like Flint, Michigan, and even the kids going to school near NASCAR arenas, who are primarily nonwhite and impoverished. And those groups–poor, nonwhite, marginalized–tend to vote liberal. In 2020, for example, Trump’s demographics are far whiter and richer than Biden’s. If lead lowered Boomers’ IQs and made them angrier and more racist, it’s probably not the only reason we are where we are.
Also, here’s a fun fact: Boomers aren’t the generation who got the most exposure to lead through their lifetimes. That would be Generation X. Kids who grew up in the 70s and 80s. Like me! I know that we tend to have a pretty flexible definition of “Boomer” when used colloquially, but I just wanted to throw it out there. If lead led us to Trump, we aren’t going to fix things just because the Boomers die off.
So how about lead and crime?
Well, in 2010, researchers published a meta analysis encompassing 19 studies on more than 8,000 children and adolescents which found that “the relation between lead exposure and conduct problems was strikingly similar in magnitude to the relation between lead exposure and decreased IQ.”
Other researchers have found that lead increases impulsivity, which, when combined with lower cognition and poorer results in schooling and fewer opportunities to climb the social ladder could conceivably result in a greater propensity for criminal behavior.
That’s why, beginning around the turn of this century, researchers like Rick Nevin began to notice that the US’s nationwide peak of crime in the 1990s, and the subsequent nationwide drop afterward, happens to make a curve that looks just like the levels of lead in the blood of preschoolers tested 19 years earlier.
In 2007, Nevin published a follow-up where he looked at lead levels and crime around the world, finding the same correlation. In the years since, many researchers have delved into this very complicated subject to try to tease out whether the pattern is real and whether or not it’s possible to state with any conviction that lead is one of the causes of crime, a very complicated subject.
And so two years ago, a team of researchers published the first meta-analysis to examine the link between lead exposure and crime, combining 24 relevant studies. After accounting for publication bias (the fact that a study is more likely to be published if it finds a statistically significant result), they found that removing lead from gasoline in the United States may have caused the homicide rate to drop 7–28%. Which is…a lot. Like, imagine if one out of every four murder victims in the United States in the 1990s was directly caused by this guy. Fun fact, Thomas Midgley Jr. not only invented leaded gasoline but he also came up with Freon, the first chlorofluorocarbon, making him a plausible 2nd choice if you invent a time machine and you’ve already strangled baby Hitler to death. On that note, Midgley’s final invention was a contraption for getting himself out of bed after he was paralyzed. “Finally,” you’re thinking, “he invented a good thing that doesn’t just end up killing someone.”
So is lead the cause of the spike in violence in the 1990s? No, it wasn’t THE cause, but there’s a very good chance that it was A cause, and getting it out of gasoline was undoubtedly a good idea that has gone on to save a lot of lives. But de-leading gasoline, and paint, and toys and things is not the end of the story of how lead has fucked us up. It’s still there, blasting into the air every time we hammer a nail into the wall of an old apartment building, kick up dirt near highways, land propeller planes near neighborhoods, and turn on the tap in a house with lead pipes and “soft” or acidic water (since “hard” water forms crystals that protect the lead from leaching into the water).
Without a concerted effort to clean up these remnant mistakes of the past, the mostly marginalized children growing up in these areas will continue to suffer from all the same ill effects we know lead causes, and society as a whole will continue to suffer an unknown amount from the poverty and crime that results.
Oh also I’m going to start washing my hands after I solder together my next flamingula. It’s a pretty small amount of lead but hey, better safe than brain-damaged, I guess.