Could Early Lead Exposure Contribute to Crime and Delinquency?
For as long as I can remember, I have always been fascinated with crime and trying to understand the reasons individuals go from being law-abiding to law-violating. This is one reason I thoroughly enjoy teaching courses like criminology, which delve into the various biological, psychological, and sociological explanations for criminal offending.
While there is plenty of strong evidence to support the various psychological and sociological explanations of crime causation, few researchers have addressed, in depth, whether environmental contaminants and pollutants contribute to crime and delinquency. Recently, I have been intent on learning more about the relationship between exposure to lead and neurological brain disorders that may lead to delinquent behaviors.
The Prevalence of Lead Toxicity in America
According to a 2016 Harvard University study, in the second half of the 19th Century, cities and towns across America built and expanded municipal water systems using lead or iron pipes. These water systems were intended to generate significant public health improvements, but these improvements have been offset by the damaging effects of lead exposure. Individuals consume lead through tap water in homes with lead pipelines, which is compounded further by aging pipelines that leak lead and other toxins into the soil. This lead exposure mostly occurs in poverty-stricken neighborhoods where there are older homes and pipelines that haven’t been updated. The Harvard study, and several others, support the hypothesis that exposure to high levels of lead predisposes children to aggressive and antisocial delinquent behaviors.
Most of us are familiar with the tragedy in Flint, Michigan and the issues surrounding its toxic water supply system, which received widespread media attention in 2016. Lead poisoning is irreversible and children with elevated levels of lead in their system will suffer lifelong consequences. “It’s a well-known, potent neurotoxin. There is tons of evidence on what lead does to a child, and it is one of the most damning things that you can do to a population. It drops your IQ, it affects your behavior, it has been linked to criminality, and it has multigenerational impacts. There is no safe level of lead in a child,” Pediatrician Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha told CNN.
The Neurotoxicity Hypothesis strongly suggests that lead should be viewed as a factor that contributes to criminal behavior. Lead and other environmental contaminants increase the probability that some individuals lose their capacity for impulse control, which can contribute to increased rates of crime and patterns of school dropout, family disintegration, and unemployment. It is widely accepted among criminal justice practitioners and scholars that one of the single most important factors associated with criminal offending is the offender’s ability to maintain self-control. The inability to delay gratification (i.e. lack of impulse control) is common among both juvenile and adult offenders. Impulse control can be viewed as a psychological disorder in which the individual cannot resist an impulse to behave in a certain way, even when they know that the behavior is socially unacceptable or illegal.
This hypothesis challenges contemporary social development theories, which emphasize the importance of social setting and social learning on delinquency without considering the implications of neurotoxicants. Despite society’s acknowledgement that lead is harmful, actively reducing the level of lead in the environment has largely been overlooked by our government, which is once again illustrated in our failed approach with the citizens of Flint, Michigan.
To make matters worse, there has been recent concern regarding the Trump administration’s commitment to fund projects that would upgrade water systems. USA Today reported that Michigan Governor Rick Snyder wrote a letter to President Trump in January asking whether Trump’s changes to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would jeopardize the $100 million in approved federal funding needed to replace Flint’s water lines. While Trump’s spokesperson downplayed the governor’s concern, it is unknown how committed this new administration is to eliminating lead and protecting the public from such major health hazards.
The presence of lead in water from deteriorating pipes, soil, and the wall paint in aging homes continues to threaten the public’s safety, particularly those in low-income neighborhoods. Furthermore, the effects of neurotoxic lead exposure in children may increase if coupled with a poor diet that lacks essential vitamins and minerals. In other words, sheer exposure to lead is not a definitive indicator of future delinquency, but antisocial behaviors are more likely to be present in individuals who live in poorer environments where different factors can coincide.
Lead Exposure, ADHD, and Delinquency
There is also strong evidence linking lead exposure to Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD), a common behavioral problem among juvenile delinquents. According to a comprehensive study within The Journal of Mental Health Policy and Economics, while genetic factors play a significant role in contributing to ADHD, environmental neurotoxicants also contribute to the prevalence of the disorder. In addition, children with elevated levels of lead toxicity are more likely to experience learning deficits, engage in early substance abuse, and drop out of school, all of which are commonly associated with juvenile delinquency. Even though brain functioning is jeopardized at any age from exposure to lead, early exposure can have an especially profound lifelong consequence to a child’s psychopathology.
In a compelling Forbes Magazine article, “even moderately high levels of lead exposure are associated with aggression, impulsivity, ADHD, and lower IQ. And right there, you’ve practically defined the profile of a violent young offender.” Therefore, if exposure to lead and other environmental pollutants are associated with crime and delinquency, as many others and I have suggested, efforts to address lead in our water supplies and elsewhere must be placed higher on the list of public priorities through immediate and widespread public policy action.
About the Author: Dr. Michael Pittaro, assistant professor within the School of Security and Global Studies at American Military University, is a 28-year criminal justice veteran, highly experienced in working with criminal offenders in a variety of settings. He has lectured in higher education for the past 15 years while also serving as an author, editor and subject matter expert.