Lead exposure and poverty: Have we gotten “youth violence” all wrong?

Lead exposure and poverty: Have we gotten “youth violence” all wrong?

December 20, 2012

CJCJ authors have published several provocative studies documenting that teenagers and young adults are no more prone to risk-taking and crime than older adults once the fact 15-24 year-olds are 2-3 times more likely to suffer the economic and environmental harms associated with poverty than middle-agers is taken into account.

We find terms like “adolescent risk taking” and “youth violence” are misnomers; rather, there are generally elevated risks that accompany worsening socioeconomic disadvantage that carry known physiological risks (the one discussed here is lead poisoning). The few middle-agers who suffer poverty rates of 15-19%—the average poverty level of teenagers—display murder, violent, felony, and other crime rates equivalent to teenagers of similar socioeconomic status.

It’s infuriating that modern authorities continue repeating the same mistake—failure to incorporate differences in economic and environmental conditions—concerning crime by young people that their discredited 19th century forbears did regarding crime by race. That despite the fact that most agree poorer populations have higher rates of arrest and crime outcomes than richer ones, a reality well documented when comparing crime rates by race or locale—but, astonishingly, never before researched when comparing younger-age to older-age crime.

Similarly often ignored research by economic consultant Rick Nevin suggests another factor co-occurring with low socioeconomic status that appears highly predictive of crime: lead poisoning. As detailed in our previous blog, blood lead levels more closely track crime rates and trends by generation and race than any other factor we can find. Whether that means lead toxicity is a direct cause—which it appears to be—or is the best representative of a family of risk factors associated with poverty demands intensive analysis.

Further, the physiological effects of lead are strikingly similar to those in-vogue biodevelopmental authorities claim are innate to the “teenage brain” (and that their forebears pronounced innate to “lower races” such as African and Native Americans and to women). Medical studies associate lead toxicity with under-developed prefrontal cortexes in the brain, lowered intelligence, reduced higher-order “executive” reasoning, lack of impulse control, greater distractibility, short attention span (hyperactivity), and difficulty regulating behavior.

“Teenage brain” authorities brandish the higher arrest, violent crime, and other risk statistics of adolescents compared to older adults and, reasoning backwards, posit that any differences found in neuroimagings of teenage versus adult brains (even though small and inconsistent) provide the biological “explanation” for “adolescent risk taking.”

However, adolescent risk statistics are defined and greatly boosted by very high rates among African American and moderately high rates among Latino and similarly low-income youth. More affluent youth, despite possessing teenage brains, don’t display elevated risk-taking—in fact, they’re among the safest, least risky populations of all.

The faulty interpretation of “adolescent risk’ statistics and biodevelopmental theory is troublesome not simply because it fails to recognize that adolescents generally are poorer than adults, but because poorer children suffer higher levels of environmental toxins such as lead in their systems due to greater exposure to lead-based paint in older housing and to pre-1990 leaded gasoline emissions concentrated in central cities. African American children’s lead levels have been 2-5 times higher than for other races’, with Latino children a distant second and White and Asian children the lowest.

Potentially, then, blood-lead toxicity should play a large role in interpreting the widely varying crime rates by population group and over time. If the real culprits in “crime proneness” among individuals who display these traits are features associated with concentrated poverty, one (and perhaps the most important) of which is greater exposure to an environmental toxin with measured harmful effects, then lead levels should be added to general socioeconomic status as a key factor in analyzing crime.