Forget crack cocaine and gang warfare. Forget the failings of inner-city schools, alcohol abuse, abusive parents, dysfunctional families and the demise of civic organizations. Forget crime-fighting initiatives, prison lockup rates and the number of cops on the beat.
It's lead that is a key factor in crime rates, and the banning of lead in gasoline contributed to a worldwide drop in violent crimes, according to new research written about in USA Today.
The seemingly extraordinary claim is backed up by some research. And it is consistent, at least, with what we know about lead: The human body doesn't need lead. In high doses, it can kill. In lower doses, particularly in fetuses and children, it interrupts the normal development of the brain, which can cause lowered IQ, learning disabilities and a tendency toward impulsive, or even violent, behavior.
The research suggests crime rates fell in the 1990s because of lead more than any other factor.
Whether or not the findings tell the whole story, the research is another reminder of how important it is to keep lead away from pregnant women, mothers and children. The recent spate of toy recalls have highlighted a previously unknown danger in children's toys -- primarily a subset of those made in China. But the larger source of exposure remains old homes, where old paint remains from the days before lead was banned. Approximately 310,000 American children have lead in their blood.
Some communities, like Milwaukee, are targeting old windows, since the normal scrape of windows being opened and closed releases dust laced with lead paint into the air. For walls, experts recommend being vigilant about cracked and peeling paint. Painting over old paint is generally a good solution, and being sure to keep children out of the area during renovation and cleaning. Proper nutrition -- with plenty of iron an calcium, particularly -- is also key, as is routine hand washing, since many children are expose by touching contaminated surfaces, and then poisoning themselves inadvertently.
These studies suggest there's more riding on those basic steps than most would have imagined.
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