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Should the lead be lead?

During the 1960s, there was an "alarming" increase in the crime rate in the United States. This was one of the factors behind Richard Nixon's election as a "law and order" president. He also made the first reference to the "War on Drugs" that was part of his crime control initiatives.

And there was a real problem. Crime rates through the U.S. had increased, drug trafficking and other drug crimes were rampant and the news media, law enforcement and the courts at times seemed overwhelmed by the issue. 

This disturbing trend drove many other disturbing trends, such as increasing the penalties for many crimes, creating large numbers of new crimes, building more prisons and the increasing militarization of the law enforcement.

In the last 20 years or so, crime rates have fallen dramatically. Some have attributed this to the draconian enforcement. But that enforcement came at a price. It brought with it the mass incarceration of millions of individuals, and many states have been struggling to deal with the costs associated with the massive prison systems they now must maintain.

But what if that had nothing to do with the drop in crime rates? Was the crime problem in the latter half of the 20th century not related to illegal narcotics, stimulants, depressants and hallucinogens, but to another chemical, also sold on the street?

Is the real culprit in all of this not the welfare state, lax parenting standards, comic books, television or illegal drugs, but tetraethyl lead and lead paint?

As shocking as the increase in crime in the U.S. was during the 1960 and 1970s, equally surprising was the decline that has occurred during the last two or so decades. And the only environmental or societal cause that closely maps on to that decline in the crime rate, is the of rise and fall of the use of lead in gasoline.

Ricknevin.com, "Prisoners in 2013: The News Media Buries the Lead," Rick Nevin, September 17, 2014

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