Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Lead poisoning via your tap water

with 4 comments

One famous notion of Rome’s decline was the gradual lead poisoning of the populace from the lead plumbing used at the time—indeed “plumbing” stems from the Latin word for “lead.” Though that theory seems false, the dangers of lead poisoning are real, and one series of studies found substantial (and to me, convincing) evidence that the decline of violence in the US overall was a result of the shift to unleaded gasoline and the discontinuance of lead-based paints in homes. (Vehicles using leaded gasoline put a lot of lead into the environment, especially in urban areas.) The esteemed criminologist James Q. Wilson, in looking at a number of possible reasons for the decline in violence, notes:

There may also be a medical reason for the decline in crime. For decades, doctors have known that children with lots of lead in their blood are much more likely to be aggressive, violent and delinquent. In 1974, the Environmental Protection Agency required oil companies to stop putting lead in gasoline. At the same time, lead in paint was banned for any new home (though old buildings still have lead paint, which children can absorb).

Tests have shown that the amount of lead in Americans’ blood fell by four-fifths between 1975 and 1991. A 2007 study by the economist Jessica Wolpaw Reyes contended that the reduction in gasoline lead produced more than half of the decline in violent crime during the 1990s in the U.S. and might bring about greater declines in the future. Another economist, Rick Nevin, has made the same argument for other nations.

Read also this Washington Post story about Rick Nevins’s research:

Rudy Giuliani never misses an opportunity to remind people about his track record in fighting crime as mayor of New York City from 1994 to 2001.

“I began with the city that was the crime capital of America,” Giuliani, now a candidate for president, recently told Fox’s Chris Wallace. “When I left, it was the safest large city in America. I reduced homicides by 67 percent. I reduced overall crime by 57 percent.”

Although crime did fall dramatically in New York during Giuliani’s tenure, a broad range of scientific research has emerged in recent years to show that the mayor deserves only a fraction of the credit that he claims. The most compelling information has come from an economist in Fairfax who has argued in a series of little-noticed papers that the “New York miracle” was caused by local and federal efforts decades earlier to reduce lead poisoning.

The theory offered by the economist, Rick Nevin, is that lead poisoning accounts for much of the variation in violent crime in the United States. It offers a unifying new neurochemical theory for fluctuations in the crime rate, and it is based on studies linking children’s exposure to lead with violent behavior later in their lives.

What makes Nevin’s work persuasive is that he has shown an identical, decades-long association between lead poisoning and crime rates in nine countries.

“It is stunning how strong the association is,” Nevin said in an interview. “Sixty-five to ninety percent or more of the substantial variation in violent crime in all these countries was explained by lead.”

Through much of the 20th century, lead in U.S. paint and gasoline fumes poisoned toddlers as they put contaminated hands in their mouths. The consequences on crime, Nevin found, occurred when poisoning victims became adolescents. Nevin does not say that lead is the only factor behind crime, but he says it is the biggest factor.

Giuliani’s presidential campaign declined to address Nevin’s contention that the mayor merely was at the right place at the right time. But William Bratton, who served as Giuliani’s police commissioner and who initiated many of the policing techniques credited with reducing the crime rate, dismissed Nevin’s theory as absurd. Bratton and Giuliani instituted harsh measures against quality-of-life offenses, based on the “broken windows” theory of addressing minor offenses to head off more serious crimes.

Many other theories have emerged to try to explain the crime decline. In the 2005 book “Freakonomics,” Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner said the legalization of abortion in 1973 had eliminated “unwanted babies” who would have become violent criminals. Other experts credited lengthy prison terms for violent offenders, or demographic changes, socioeconomic factors, and the fall of drug epidemics. New theories have emerged as crime rates have inched up in recent years.

Most of the theories have been long on intuition and short on evidence. Nevin says his data not only explain the decline in crime in the 1990s, but the rise in crime in the 1980s and other fluctuations going back a century. His data from multiple countries, which have different abortion rates, police strategies, demographics and economic conditions, indicate that lead is the only explanation that can account for international trends.

Because the countries phased out lead at different points, they provide a rigorous test: In each instance, the violent crime rate tracks lead poisoning levels two decades earlier.

“It is startling how much mileage has been given to the theory that abortion in the early 1970s was responsible for the decline in crime” in the 1990s, Nevin said. “But they legalized abortion in Britain, and the violent crime in Britain soared in the 1990s. The difference is our gasoline lead levels peaked in the early ’70s and started falling in the late ’70s, and fell very sharply through the early 1980s and was virtually eliminated by 1986 or ’87.

“In Britain and most of Europe, they did not have meaningful constraints [on leaded gasoline] until the mid-1980s and even early 1990s,” he said. “This is the reason you are seeing the crime rate soar in Mexico and Latin America, but [it] has fallen in the United States.”

Continue reading.

And yet many Americans are unwittingly drinking water heavily spiked with lead. Kevin Drum reports for Mother Jones:

Historically, there have been four main sources of lead poisoning: paint, gasoline, tin cans, and water pipes. Lead paint was banned years ago, though old paint still remains a hazard in old housing, particularly in window sills. Leaded gasoline is no longer sold, and its only remaining threat is via old lead deposited in soil, especially in urban areas. Tin cans haven’t used lead sealant for decades.

And water pipes—well, they’ve never been the most important source of lead poisoning, but they’ve been the most resistant to change. Thousands of miles of lead pipe are still in service, and as Sheila Kaplan and Corbin Hiar report this week, efforts to fix them have not just run aground, but possibly even made things worse.

The EPA wrote a rule in 1991 that forced water utilities to control lead levels, if necessary by replacing pipes. But the utilities sued, saying they didn’t have the legal authority to replace the portions of pipe on private property—that is, the last 40 or 50 feet of pipe leading into homes. Eventually EPA backed down, but their solution may have just made the problem worse:

After years of industry lobbying, the agency amended its rule in 2000 to permit the utilities to perform so-called “partial pipe replacements,” from the water main to the private property line. In the vast majority of cases, homeowners would be responsible for paying to finish the job.

Few homeowners have done so, to their detriment…Partial pipe replacements can physically shake loose lead fragments that have built up and laid dormant inside the pipe, pushing them into the homeowners’ water, and spiking the lead levels, even where they previously were not high. In addition, the type of partial replacement that joins old lead pipes to new copper ones, using brass fittings, “spurs galvanic corrosion that can dramatically increase the amount of lead released into drinking water supplies,” according to research from Washington University. Similar findings have been published by researchers at the Virginia Tech and elsewhere.

So why are these partial pipe replacements still commonplace?

One reason is that it’s expensive to replace a homeowner’s section of pipe. But another reason is that a lot of water customers don’t know the danger that partial pipe replacement poses. Utilities are required to provide only vague warnings when they do mandatory replacements, which is bad enough. But the vast majority of partial pipe replacements aren’t mandatory. They’re just part of normal maintenance procedures:

The level of warning the 13 water companies made dropped even further when the same utilities were conducting routine voluntary replacements during roadwork or to fix leaks—essentially the same procedure, but not ordered under the law. Only around half of the utilities alert residents to the potential for lead levels to spike after a voluntary partial pipe replacement.

Part of the reason these utilities don’t give the same warnings when doing basically the same procedure is that they’re not required to. EPA offers no guidance for these far more common voluntary partial lead service line replacements done by utilities across the country.

Likely as a result, the vast majority of other U.S. cities that are not under EPA orders to replace their remnant lead pipe systems rarely give any warnings to their customers about lead levels spiking after they do voluntary partial service line replacements.

Full-scale lead removal from the environment would be expensive. It would mean cleaning up all the lead suspended in soil, retrofitting millions of old window fittings, and replacing thousands of miles of lead pipe. But the costs of lead poisoning are enormous too. We’ve known for a long time that high levels of blood lead in children are dangerous, but more recent research shows that the biggest effects actually come at the smallest levels. That is, the amount of damage is bigger going from 0 to 5 mg/dl than from 5 to 10. And that in turn is bigger than going from 10 to 20. So even if lead levels have been reduced significantly over the past few decades—and they have—there are still huge benefits from getting rid of the last remnants. . .

Continue reading for the list of benefits. I believe that a functional Congress would press hard for removing lead from the environment because it is so clearly a matter of the public welfare. I wonder if this or the next Congress will even consider the issue.

Oddly enough, DC was found to have extremely high levels of lead in its tap water a few years back. The article at the link reports how the Center for Disease Control made claims that high lead levels posed no risks.

Written by LeisureGuy

10 August 2012 at 8:09 am

4 Responses

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  1. There is another culprit in the story of lead in our water: the lead industry. For decades after the lead companies knew that lead pipes could cause lead poisoning they continued to sell and promote lead pipes. (see The Lead Industry and Lead Water Pipes: “A Modest Campaign”; Am J Public Health. 2008;98:1584–1592)

    Richard Rabin

    25 September 2012 at 11:41 am

  2. Corporations have no moral sense and no sense of ethics: they are driven solely by the drive to grow profits continually and are restrained by laws and regulations only if regulatory agencies are alert, strong, and active—and of course corporations pay members of Congress handsomely to gut regulations and weaken agencies besides working constant to suborn agencies directly—cf. the SEC totally ignoring the warnings it received about Bernie Madoff, etc.

    The lead industry, the cigarette industry, the auto industry (fighting every law and regulation to make cars safer), and many others: none of them care a whit about the harm their products do to the public, so long as they can increase profits and externalize the costs (leaving the costs to be paid by the public).

    LeisureGuy

    25 September 2012 at 12:02 pm

  3. There is another culprit in the story of lead in our water: the lead industry. For decades after the lead companies knew that lead pipes could cause lead poisoning they continued to sell and promote lead pipes. (see The Lead Industry and Lead Water Pipes: “A Modest Campaign”; Am J Public Health. 2008;98:1584–1592)

    Richard Rabin

    9 October 2012 at 12:13 pm

  4. I am not surprised. See my previous comment. And, of course, none of the offending companies or their executives suffered any legal penalties or sanctions.

    LeisureGuy

    9 October 2012 at 1:02 pm


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