Getting the lead out

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Science is a wonderful thing: whether you like scientists or not, agree with them or not, they just keep trundling along in all directions, doing their level best to batter the sharp edges off the most staunchly held beliefs.

Take violent crime and the stance the federal government has taken to increase penalties — even though penalties like longer sentences haven’t worked in other jurisdictions and even though statistics show the rate of violent crime in Canada to be falling.

There’s interesting research being done on the correlation between levels of violent crime and lead exposure, and if you have even a partially open mind, it certainly makes you wonder if there might not be better ways to address violent criminals than by simply locking them away for longer and hoping they learn a lesson.

A series of different studies have looked at the staggered removal of lead from house paint and as an anti-knock additive in gasoline, and noted that, 20 years after the removal of the metal, countries show a marked decrease in violent crime.

Areas with higher lead exposures have significantly higher levels of violent crime. The suggestion is that the level of lead in infants significantly alters the development of particular regions of their brains, leaving them to grow into more aggressively inclined adults. Other studies show violent crime levels peaking almost exactly 20 years after lead pollution levels peaked, suggesting that lead-poisoned infants had reached a violent maturity.

The scientific work has been touched on in the media by articles in The Guardian in Britain and by Mother Jones magazine, and there’s certainly plenty of legwork left to be done to show causation — although those pesky scientists are continuing to pile up studies showing such things as higher lead levels in young offenders than non-offenders in some American cities and other troublesome factual information.

But leave the fact that we’re in the early stages of a causal relationship alone for a second, and ask yourself what that would do to the house of cards of “lock them up and throw away the key” that our current federal government espouses.

If violence has an organic cause, all the penalties in the world won’t make it vanish — they’ll only move the violence to another place, safely out of sight and mind but considerably more expensive than a lot of options.

Wouldn’t it be far better to consider treating (or at least recognizing) the disease, rather than the symptom?

No wonder the current administration has so little time for science folks and their inconvenient facts.

Imagine if preventing heavy metal contamination in children ended up doing far more to address violent crime than all the prison construction in the nation could.

Wouldn’t that be a kick in the otherwise comfortable belief system?

Organizations: Mother Jones magazine

Geographic location: Canada, Britain

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