Ten Miles Square


January 02, 2013 10:03 AM Getting the (Remaining) Lead Out

By Mark Kleiman

Shorter Kevin Drum:

1. Lead is remarkably nasty stuff. In minuscule quantities (measured in the single digits of micrograms per decliter of blood) it damages both IQ and the capacity for self-command.

2. The rise of lead exposure from gasoline, and its subsequent decline, accounts for a large share of the crime boom of 1960-90 and the crime decline that started in 1994.

3. Children are still being exposed to lead from two major sources: residual lead in soil, and lead paint in homes, especially window-frames.

4. Substantially eliminating those sources of exposure would require a one-time expenditure of about $400 billion. (That sounds like a lot of money, until you look at Treasury bond rates and translate it to $12 billion a year.)

5. The return on that investment would be at least in the high tens of billions of dollars per year.

Kevin’s piece, the cover story in the current Mother Jones, is a model of science/policy journalism. He carefully chases down both the biology and the social science supporting the claims about the effects of lead, identifies the main remaining sources, and documents the abatement processes, with cost estimates. (The quantification of benefits is mostly hand-waving; neither the outcome predictions nor the valuations are convincing. But it’s more than adequate to show that the benefit-cost analysis would come out hugely positive.)

It remains to be seen whether a crime-control and educational initiative that doesn’t fit the intellectual categories or feed the budgets of the criminal-justice and educational systems can obtain any political purchase. The answer so far seems to be no.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the University of California Los Angeles.


  • Doh on January 04, 2013 8:12 AM:

    It's a good article, but I think the weakest part is the assertion that we know the lead in kids' blood is coming from windows with lead paint and dust with old leaded gas. He asserts, without much if any explanation, that these sources are much larger than things like avgas, smelters, toys, food, etc.

  • Rich on January 04, 2013 4:21 PM:

    It's very weak journalism on top of very weak science. The studies are largely uncontrolled and there are plenty of potential intervening variables.

  • Ed Bardell on January 04, 2013 5:47 PM:

    Or, another explanation
    The huge economic boom created by the Clinton Tax plan
    which raised the levels on income and opportunity for the
    whole middle and lower classes in america.

    Sadly, The Clinton plan was overwritten by Bush
    and now Obama has made permanent the worst of the
    Bush tax plan, and effectively killed any opportunity to
    return to the Boom years of the Clinton tax plan.


  • esaud on January 05, 2013 8:42 AM:

    I wish he tracked down any connection to ADD/ADHD, etc. It seems to me that these bloomed much later and continue to grow.

    I also have to marvel at how bad the US was at regulating businesses. Lead was always known to be a terrible poison, so why wasn't lead gas tested before it was sold?

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  • Doh on January 05, 2013 10:23 PM:

    @Rich-- I am perfectly willing to concede that these big econometric studies can be a little suspect, but in fact there is a ton of science-- epidemiological, toxicological, etc.-- that supports the underlying conclusions that lead affects behavior in these ways.

  • rk on January 11, 2013 3:55 PM:

    Readers that are skeptical of the Mother Jones article need to remember that Drum is merely reporting the results of established science. He is not presenting new information. For a good review on leaded gasoline and concern about its public health effect see e.g., Int J Occup Environ Health. 2005 Oct-Dec;11(4):384-97. For more information on the public health effects of low lead concentrations in children see e g., doi: 10.1146/annurev.med.55.091902.103653 (a paper published after the famous review of Needleman's research). It is easy to say that correlation does not equal causation. The important point here is that a a number of falsifiable hypotheses have been presented. The studies that have tested these hypotheses and have failed to falsify them.