Has unleaded petrol reduced violent crime?

Embed from Getty ImagesI thoroughly recommend buying and reading the “Big Issue“. It carries a very attractive and eclectic range of articles. One of its features is “My Pitch”, where the story of a Big Issue seller is related. I find myself reading this feature first – it is always fascinating and heart-warming.

I’m now going to raise a topic which was mentioned in “Big Issue” this week in a curious way. Their “Focus” piece was a Q&A with Neil Dudgeon (any relation to Guy Dudgeon who produced “Space Oddity”?-ed).

Who is Neil Dudgeon? – I hear you cry.

He is Inspector Barnaby in Midsomer Murders. He seems to be quite thoughtful. The Q&A leads on to the lead piping in the Cluedo set and Neil Dudgeon says:

On the subject of lead, I gather that since lead was taken out of petrol about 30 years ago there has been a 50 per cent decline in the amount of violent crime in the country. I don’t think it’s clear exactly what the relationship is but it seems a big coincidence. There are people who know more about this than me. I’m only a pretend TV detective.

This 2014 BBC article by Dominic Casciani is a good starting point on this topic:

Lead theorists say that data they’ve collated and calculated from each nation shows the same 20-year trend – the sooner lead is removed from the environment, the sooner crime will begin to fall.

Dr Bernard Gesch says the data now suggests that lead could account for as much as 90% of the changing crime rate during the 20th Century across all of the world.

“A lot of people would say that correlation isn’t cause,” he says. “But it seems that the more the exposure, the more extreme the behaviour. I’m certainly not saying that lead is the only explanation why crime is falling – but it is certainly the most persuasive. Unless someone is telling us that the brain is not involved in decision-making then lead has to be relevant to crime.”

So why isn’t this theory universally accepted?

Well, it remains a theory because nobody could ever deliberately poison thousands of children to see whether they became criminals later in life.

Lead theorists say that doesn’t matter because the big problem is mainstream criminologists and policymakers who can’t think outside the box.

But Roger Matthews, professor of criminology at the University of Kent, rejects that. He says biological criminologists completely miss the point.

“I don’t see the link,” he says. “If this causes some sort of effect, why should those effects be criminal?

Short of force-feeding lead to a cohort of children to see if they turn out more criminal than unleaded children, it seems unlikely this argument will be settled.

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