Saturday, November 10, 2007

Why Are We Not Guarding the Shores?

A few years ago, a principal in New York wondered why his school had a disproportionate level of special education students. His conclusion: it was because a disproportionate amount of them had been exposed to high levels of lead--41% in fact (including 100% of the special education students).

His quote, from a USA Today article: "If we had 41% of our children wading into Lake Ontario, and they came out with permanent brain damage, we'd be guarding the shores with state police."

I've heard about lead poisoning here and there, and I've heard jokes about people eating paint chips, but I never realized the extent of the problem until reading the above article. Some absolutely stunning statistics: since the amount of lead in our nation's homes has been phased out over the last 20 to 25 years, IQs have risen nationally by about 4-5 points. Meanwhile, studies have also shown that there is a correlation between areas with fluctuating lead concentration and fluctuating crime rates.

A quote from an economist in a Washington Post article: "It is stunning how strong the association is...Sixty-five to ninety percent or more of the substantial variation in violent crime in [studied] countries was explained by lead."

There are multiple studies cited in the Post article above. Here's just one of them:

Chicago's Robert Taylor Homes...were built over the Dan Ryan Expressway, with 150,000 cars going by each day. Eighteen years after the project opened in 1962, one study found that its residents were 22 times more likely to be murderers than people living elsewhere in Chicago.

Why why is nobody guarding the shores?

As the Post article points out, there was quite a bit of attention given to another economist's assertion that decreases in American crime rates could be correlated with legalized abortion (despite crime going up in Britain with the legalization of abortion), while attention has also been given to the "broken windows theory," popularized by Malcolm Gladwell and seized upon by Rudy Giuliani as the reason for a "miraculous" downtown in crime in New York. (But how ironic that the USA Today article posits windowsills as the primary cause of lead poisoning. Could it be that all the resources put towards broken windows would have been better spent on the actual windowsills?)

That these ideas exist and that they are topics of scrutiny and discussion prove two things. First, we want explanations for societal phenomena. Second, we are willing to entertain counter intuitive theories.

So why is nobody guarding the shores? The first and obvious answer relates to economics. It would cost money to make the changes necessary to ensure that all the lead contaminants of previous years are dealt with. However, I wonder, as I so often do, if there isn't something deeper at work.

The abortion theory and the broken windows theory both have troublesome aspects. The first has an almost eugenicist component to it. The second implies that societal behavior can be rather easily manipulated. However, as horrifying as these theories can be when taken to their farthest implications, neither completely removes the idea of individual free will. Taken to it's extreme, the "lead theory" is the stuff of science fiction. The trope is a common one: an innocent person is made to be a killer by some physical factor outside of his control. The possibility that this scenario has been commonplace in American history might be too much for us to face.

In Superman mythos, lead is the one device that the Man of Tomorrow can not penetrate with his X-Ray Vision. It just might have similar blinding effects on our collective vision.


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