How Jamaica Got the Lead Out and Brought Its Murder Rate Down

A blog about business and economics.
Aug. 18 2013 10:26 AM

How Jamaica Got the Lead Out and Brought Its Murder Rate Down

80221410
Violet Welcome poses for a photograph next to a memorial to her son, a victim of crime, in Rose Town on March 12, 2008 in Kingston, Jamaica.

Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images

When I read the New York Times writing about a 40 percent fall in Jamaica's murder rate (it's still very high) I naturally wondered about Kevin Drum's lead angle. And he says it fits the pattern: From 1990 to 2000, Jamaica started phasing out leaded gasoline. From 2009 to 2013, the crime rate has fallen forty percent. In other words, Jamaica is likely starting to see the beneficial impact of a youth cohort with lower levels of lead poisoning. And just based on the lead channel alone you'd expect to see meaningful further improvements over the next 5-10 years as the kids who were born after the complete eradication of leaded gasoline grow up.

That's not to ignore the other factors the article points to—particularly the crucial arrest of one particular drug lord—except to say that any kind of change in police tactics or strategies is going to bear more fruit against a general background of higher IQ, improved impulse control, and less violent behavior. And of course if Jamaica is lucky, it'll see some virtuous circles taking hold here. A lower level of violent crime should improve local business conditions, which should give people higher wages and more job opportunities outside of the criminal sector.

Advertisement

Of course to really be sure about this you'd want more detailed information about specific lead levels in Jamaicans' blood. But in light of the evidence from other countries it's fairly persuasive. And of course it suggests that the country has plenty more to gain from cleaning up contaminated soils. More broadly, though there's a lot of lip service paid to the concept of "environmental externalities" people rarely focus on it as a core economic policy issue. And yet in an industrial society where the most basic tasks (turn on the television, drive to the store) often involve directly or indirectly burning unpleasant substances the underregulation of toxins is a crucial problem. Climate change tends to outshine all other environmental worries these days, but the lead-crime link is a powerful reminder that a whole range of issues people care deeply about have significant environmental aspects.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Talking White

Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.

Hong Kong’s Protesters Are Ridiculously Polite. That’s What Scares Beijing So Much.

The One Fact About Ebola That Should Calm You: It Spreads Slowly

Operation Backbone

How White Boy Rick, a legendary Detroit cocaine dealer, helped the FBI uncover brazen police corruption.

A Jaw-Dropping Political Ad Aimed at Young Women, Apparently

The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 4:05 PM Today in GOP Outreach to Women: You Broads Like Wedding Dresses, Right?
Music

How Even an Old Hipster Can Age Gracefully

On their new albums, Leonard Cohen, Robert Plant, and Loudon Wainwright III show three ways.

How Tattoo Parlors Became the Barber Shops of Hipster Neighborhoods

This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century

Moneybox
Oct. 1 2014 8:34 AM This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century To undertake a massively ambitious energy project, you don’t need the government anymore.
  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 1 2014 12:20 PM Don’t Expect Hong Kong’s Protests to Spread to the Mainland
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 1 2014 2:16 PM Wall Street Tackles Chat Services, Shies Away From Diversity Issues 
  Life
Outward
Oct. 1 2014 6:02 PM Facebook Relaxes Its “Real Name” Policy; Drag Queens Celebrate
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 5:11 PM Celebrity Feminist Identification Has Reached Peak Meaninglessness
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 3:24 PM Revelry (and Business) at Mohonk Photos and highlights from Slate’s annual retreat.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 9:39 PM Tom Cruise Dies Over and Over Again in This Edge of Tomorrow Supercut
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 6:59 PM EU’s Next Digital Commissioner Thinks Keeping Nude Celeb Photos in the Cloud Is “Stupid”
  Health & Science
Science
Oct. 1 2014 4:03 PM Does the Earth Really Have a “Hum”? Yes, but probably not the one you’re thinking.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 1 2014 5:19 PM Bunt-a-Palooza! How bad was the Kansas City Royals’ bunt-all-the-time strategy in the American League wild-card game?