Kevin Drum wrote himself onto the cover of Mother Jones with an article about the link between environmental lead and crime, and what we ought to do about it. Some of it is not news - the NY Times and the WaPo noted some of the key articles back in 2007 while bashing Rudy Giuliani for taking unwarranted credit for the drop in crime in New York City. (Instapundit readers and longtimers here surely remember.)
That said, the intellectual ball has advanced and Kevin has interesting points about both abatement possibilities (lead dust doesn't just walk away) and the non-embrace of this theory amongst the criminologist community. [But let's include some pushback from Ron Bailey of Hit & Run].
However, on that latter point this struck me as strangely unreflective:
My own sense is that interest groups probably play a crucial role [in ignoring the lead-crime connection]: Political conservatives want to blame the social upheaval of the '60s for the rise in crime that followed. Police unions have reasons for crediting its decline to an increase in the number of cops. Prison guards like the idea that increased incarceration is the answer. Drug warriors want the story to be about drug policy. If the actual answer turns out to be lead poisoning, they all lose a big pillar of support for their pet issue. And while lead abatement could be big business for contractors and builders, for some reason their trade groups have never taken it seriously.
Hmm. And why have liberals progressives, the people of science, not been trumpeting these discoveries? A plausible intrepretation of these results is that America has a generation of lead-poisoned, brain-damaged urban blacks who are old enough to be less violent but still afflicted with reduced IQ and reduced impulse control. Is that where MSNBC wants to go? Is there a prominent Democrat who wants to stand up and tell us that one of the pillars of the Democratic Party is disproportionately brain-damaged, through no fault of their own? I don't think so.
And heaven help any Republican who suggests we need to spend billions getting the lead out of our inner cities so we can stop damaging the brains of the urban poor. Science notwithstanding, it sounds racist. Maybe Mayor Bloomberg could have pulled it off, but he is leaving.
Kevin does waltz near to this problem in noting the reasons for a lack of public discussion:
One of them was put bluntly by Herbert Needleman, one of the pioneers of research into the effect of lead on behavior. A few years ago, a reporter from the Baltimore City Paper asked him why so little progress had been made recently on combating the lead-poisoning problem. "Number one," he said without hesitation, "it's a black problem." But it turns out that this is an outdated idea. Although it's true that lead poisoning affects low-income neighborhoods disproportionately, it affects plenty of middle-class and rich neighborhoods as well. "It's not just a poor-inner-city-kid problem anymore," Nevin says. "I know people who have moved into gentrified neighborhoods and immediately renovate everything. And they create huge hazards for their kids."
Based on a quick word search of his article that is the only mention of "black" or "African-American". No profiles in courage here.
It will be hard to come up with the money to fix this without an explanation of why we need it, and that explanation is fraught with PC peril.
ERRATA: Let me quote the Times from 2007:
No matter how suggestive the economists’ data, it takes a doctor to show that some of the people most damaged by lead are out there breaking the law. Herbert Needleman, the University of Pittsburgh psychiatrist and pediatrician whose work helped persuade the government to ban lead in the 1970s, recently studied a sample of juvenile delinquents in Pittsburgh; the group had significantly more lead in their bones than their peers.
And here is a paper by Rick Nevin, who had this idea early.
AS WE AWAIT THE RESPONSIBLE DISCUSSION: Obama's former minister Jeremiah Wright backed the notion that the US was behind the AIDS virus; Michelle Obama encouraged black patients to distrust pharmaceutical companies. What will these two make of the white-led conspiracy to poison blacks by way of leaded gasoline?
FURTHERING FANNING THE RACIAL FLAMES: Just how will the notion of poisoned blacks track alongside the logic of affirmative action? If urban blacks are disproportionately IQ impaired, just what is the right target representation in colleges, police departments, fire departments and so on?
I see an incredibly awkward and divisive national conversation, I am not surprised we have ducked it, and I won't be surprised if we continue to duck it.
GOOD BACKGROUND FROM THE TIMES:
The Times reported on environmental lead:
Environmental Hazards; After Years of Cleanup, Lead Poisoning Persists As a Threat to Health
Despite steady progress in reducing lead hazards, millions of Americans are still absorbing unhealthy amounts of lead from air, dust, water, food and peeling paint found in older buildings, according to a recent authoritative report and experts in the field.
''Lead is potentially toxic wherever it is found, and it is found everywhere,'' warned a report to Congress by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a unit of the Federal Centers for Disease Control. The report said ''little or no margin of safety exists'' between levels of lead already found in the blood of large segments of the population and those levels associated with toxic risk.
The warning followed two decades of progress in removing lead from the environment. The amount of lead in gasoline and in paint has been sharply reduced. Lead solder has been banned in plumbing and eliminated from many food cans.
The Environmental Protection Agency this month proposed new standards to reduce further the lead in drinking water. And many cities have conducted cleanup campaigns in decaying neighborhoods to reduce the hazards of severe poisoning from peeling lead-based paint.
And they go on. Lest you wonder, that is from 1988.
And lead poisoning is not just for the poor:
Study Documents Lead-Exposure Damage in Middle-Class Children
By JANE E. BRODY
Published: October 29, 1992
Children from middle-class families are as likely as poor children to suffer losses in intelligence after exposure to low levels of lead early in life, according to a new study.
The study appears to answer critics who have suggested that research on the exposure of poor children to lead might have failed to take into account other factors, like socioeconomic standing or genetics, that could affect intelligence.
...The new findings show that contrary to assertions by industry and some scientists, the losses in intellectual ability and school performance among children with elevated levels of lead in their blood are not solely the result of genetics or socioeconomic status or any other known influences on mental development. Both the Australian and Boston studies took into account factors like the mother's I.Q., parenting styles, other illnesses, birth order, parental smoking and a host of other possible influences on a child's I.Q.
I infer that earlier studies that correlated reduced IQ with elevated lead among poor kids were criticized for a failure to control for the many other possible developmental problems associated with poverty. Putting middle class kids in the mix would be one way to resolve that.
SOME HISTORY: The hazards of lead were well known and widely recognized for centuries. The discovery of tetraethyl lead as a useful anti-knock additive to gasoline back in the 1920's is shocking; here is a short version and a longer one. The US then sounds somewhat like China today.
Inventor Thomas Midgley later added chlorofloroucarbons to his resume, putting him on the short list of Greatest Environmental Supervillain Ever. Since you ask, he had several bouts of lead poisoning.