Action Potential

Crime, punishment and neurotoxicity

Instead of a tough-talking mayor, new windows may be to thank for the drop in violent crime in New York City. The Washington Post reports that according to economist Rick Nevin, 65-95% of the variation in violent crime in 9 countries can be explained by lead. Nevins claims that crime rates rise and fall approximately 20 years after environmental lead concentrations increase and decrease, respectively. This theory isn’t new, but its relation to American politics is. Rudy Giuliani, former New York City mayor and current presidential candidate, claims that his law enforcement policies reduced homicides by 67% and total crime by 57% during his tenure as mayor from 1994-2001. Nevins argues that Giuliani benefited from policies in the 1960s to replace old lead windows (to reduce deadly falls) and in the 1970s and 1980s to reduce lead in paint and gasoline.

Lead is a neurotoxin that passes through the blood-brain barrier. Lidsky and Schneider report that lead mimics calcium in brain cells, disturbing endogenous calcium levels and inducing cytochrome C release from mitochondria. Lead also increases basal levels of acetylcholine, dopamine and amino acid neurotransmitters but reduces their activity-dependent release. Because children often put their hands in their mouths, they are susceptible to exposure to lead in paint. What are the behavioral effects of lead? Herbert Needleman, a psychiatrist at the University of Pittsburgh, reported increased lead levels in the bones of 11-year-old children with antisocial and delinquent behaviors and adolescents who had been through the penal system relative to their peers, suggesting that lead increases sociopathic behaviors and impulsivity.

Perhaps these data indicate that it’s time for political candidates to pipe down about their past achievements and speak up about how they intend to clean up the environment.


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