Vol. 7, No. 3 2001 Page 1

Air lead concentrations, homicide rates linked

Evidence linking elevated lead levels to criminality continues to mount, with a new study showing a strong association between air lead concentrations and homicide rates.

Paul Stretesky and Michael Lynch analyzed Environmental Protection Agency data on air lead levels for 3,111 counties in the 48 contiguous states. They compared this data with information on homicides obtained from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, averaging the number of homicides over a three-year period (1989-1991) to minimize the effects of annual fluctuations. They also controlled for 15 factors including county areas, percentage of county residents in the 16-to-29 age range, poverty rates, educational levels, urbanization, county location, ethnic factors, and concentrations of other air pollutants.

After adjusting for these factors, the researchers found that homicide levels were nearly four times higher in counties with maximum air lead concentrations than in counties with the lowest levels. While they caution that their data do not prove causation, they say that "the results of this study contribute to the emerging and controversial issue concerning the role of lead exposure in predisposing some individuals to committing crime and displaying violent behaviors."

Stretesky and Lynch are the latest researchers to link lead to antisocial, delinquent or criminal behavior. Earlier (see related article, Crime Times, 1996, Vol. 2, No. 2, Page 1), Herbert Needleman and colleagues followed 212 boys for four years and found that those with higher lead levels committed significantly more antisocial acts than those with low lead levels. More recently (see related article, Crime Times, 2000, Vol. 6, No. 3, Page 2), Needleman and colleagues reported that convicted juveniles were nearly twice as likely as controls to have high bone-lead levels. Another study, by Deborah Denno and colleagues (see related article, Crime Times, 1995, Vol. 1, No. 3, Page 5) found that lead poisoning was a strong predictor of disciplinary problems in school, which in turn were the strongest predictor of arrests for children and young adults.


"The relationship between lead exposure and homicide," Paul B. Stretesky and Michael J. Lynch, Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, Vol. 155, No. 5, May 2001, pp. 579-582. Address: Paul B. Stretesky, Department of Sociology, B258 Clark Building, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO 80523.

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