5.14.2008

Can crime be blamed on lead in soil?

National News
Can crime be blamed on lead in soil?
By Jesse Muhammad
Staff Writer

(FinalCall.com) - An investigation led by the National Center for Healthy Housing pinpoints the link between lead exposure and crime in the United States and in eight European countries.

“What my research shows is that there is an extremely strong relationship between the rise and fall in lead exposure and the rise and fall of crime, with a time lag that reflects the typical age of offenders suggesting some sort of an interaction,” said researcher and economist Rick Nevin.

“My first study showed that the murder rate in the U.S. from 1900 through 1960 rose and fell, and I mean by a huge margin, from one per 100,000 to 10 per 100,000 then back down to five, tracking the rise and fall of lead paint use with a 21 year time lag,” said Mr. Nevin.

Prior to and since Hurricane Katrina, the crime rate in New Orleans has risen as well and Mr. Nevin wonders whether hidden lead exposure has influenced violent behavior sweeping the storm-torn city.

“The inner cities are extremely highly contaminated with lead,” said Dr. Howard Mielke of Xavier University’s Center for Bioenvironmental Research.

Over 30-years-old ago lead paint was banned in homes but Dr. Mielke said soil in New Orleans is contaminated with dangerous levels of lead. “The amounts of lead here (in the inner city areas), these communities have a reading of 1,000 parts per million.”

Dr. Mielke said the lead dust in the soil comes from lead paint and from gasoline that pumped huge quantities of lead aerosol into the air before a 1986 ban.

“Any part of the city where you have a lot of autos and very high traffic flows we find very large amounts of lead,” said Dr. Mielke.

“The people of New Orleans in the poor areas have always been mentally unstable and I knew it was something. Guess I got my answer,” said Michael Jones, a New Orleanian, now residing in Dallas. “A lot of young people are real aggressive out there and get addicted to doing violence early on. But I think also the government allows this lead poison to remain as another means by which to remove poor people.”

“If we want to make sure we have healthy children in our community we have to deal with the lead issue,” said Dr. Edward Blakely, executive director of the Recovery and Development Administration.

Why is lead so harmful?

Dr. Mielke notes that while children are interacting early on with deadly items that may have lead and placing them in their mouths, their bodies are not equipped to eradicate the lead from their system. “So they tend to absorb it and it tends to go into the blood and into the bone, and it affects the brain especially,” he explained.

“It causes a problem with development. It causes a problem with IQ and learning, and in some cases can be permanent,” added Dr. Earthea Nance, who directs the city’s infrastructure and planning department. Research also shows lead exposure can cause behavioral disorders and aggression.

Dr. Mielke said recent studies revealed lead exposure affects up to 30 percent of the children in inner city New Orleans. The city countermeasure to combat the threat of lead is an unlikely source: sunflowers.

“We’re planting sunflowers, which take up lead from the soil,” said Dr. Nance. A citizen’s guide will be produced to teach ways to use sunflowers to remove lead from their yards, she said.

“We want there to be a place people can go to get their soils tested, to find out the extent, if there’s any contamination,” Dr. Nance added.

Dr. Mielke said mud washed up from the Mississippi River, called alluvium, is another element that can decrease lead contamination. This approach could cost the city over $300 million to implement but Dr. Mielke contends doing nothing is becoming even more costly.