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The Gun Report: Research shows connection between lead and crime

Dr. Howard Mielke in front of Charity Hospital, which used to provide treatment for the mentally ill.

Dr. Howard Mielke in front of Charity Hospital, which used to provide treatment for the mentally ill.

Howard Mielke was fixing a dinner salad when the doorbell rang. Because the man at the door offered him a complimentary copy of the Advocate, he unlocked the gate to receive the newspaper. A few seconds later, he was lying on the floor with a gun to his head while an accomplice searched the house for cash. Mielke had just become another statistic for his scientific theories.

The researcher has dedicated his career to identifying and measuring contaminants in the soil. Decades-long research has convinced him that lead residue originating primarily from gasoline emissions prior to 1986 and secondarily from lead-based paint off dilapidated buildings built before 1978 instigates criminal acts today.

Many in the public health community believe chronic exposure to lead, particularly during childhood, creates permanent neurological damage, altering neurotransmitters and hormones in the brain, resulting in weakened impulse control, lowered IQs, increased learning disabilities and antisocial behavior, including violence. Louisiana children under 5 years of age are supposed to be routinely tested for lead poisoning, but often are not. If parents understand the serious health consequences, they actually must ask doctors to test their children for lead.

Most older U.S. cities with lead residue experience high rates of crime -- Baltimore, St. Louis, Philadelphia and New York, for example. Boston has made significant progress ridding lead dust from its core, but few cities have a strategy for remediation.

“The problem is that it is too big an issue,” Mielke said.

The research professor and his public health students have surveyed New Orleans neighborhoods, overlaying lead maps with crime maps to find a close connection. New Orleans has never developed an overall plan to remediate soil and housing stock (with the exception of HUD developments), and leaders often disregard warnings on new construction. The Recovery School District currently plans to build a school on a location used until the 1930s as landfill, and remains contaminated with heavy metals, including lead, Mielke says. Lead concentrations at the site are said to be 24 times higher than the Environmental Protection Agency’s standard for playgrounds. Opponents recently appealed to the City Council for additional safeguards.

A plethora of research suggests that exposing young people to toxic elements on a daily basis basically breeds criminal behavior.

“The school should just be built elsewhere because the cost to properly remediate the soil is too high,” he said.

Mielke has been testing soil for 40 years. He began his research at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, where he measured lead levels across the city. The worst contamination was close to major thoroughfares where decades of emissions from leaded gasoline had been deposited.

“I actually started collecting samples in my own [Baltimore] backyard and discovered that the samples had a lot more lead than what you'd expect. In fact, they were close to what was recognized at the time -- this was back in the mid-70s -- would be recognized as hazardous waste if they were at an industrial site. My students collected samples from the gardens, and since it was a commuter campus, I would gain samples from all the metropolitan area. We kept track of the addresses and marked it on a map, and we started realizing the interior of the city was very highly contaminated,” Mielke was quoted in Jan. 3, 2013 profile in Mother Jones.

As a research associate at the University of Minnesota in 1983, his own daughter Beverly’s blood work showed lead because the grounds surrounding her daycare center, located near a major freeway, had not been remediated.

“She was playing in a sandbox and around the sandbox was soil contaminated with lead from 500 to 1000 parts per million. [The current standard is 400 ppm],” Mielke told Mother Jones.

St. Paul and Minneapolis showed the same inner-city accumulations of lead.

On behalf of the Minnesota Lead Coalition, he presented his findings in a 1984 testimony before Congress. A rapid phase-down began two years later, reducing lead emissions, but the residue remains. It has been estimated that 7 million tons of lead were released into the atmosphere nationwide from leaded gasoline.

At Xavier University, Mielke continued his research and in 1991 developed the first New Orleans map, which identified the distribution of lead in the soil, neighborhood by neighborhood. He concluded that lead is most heavily embedded in soil along roadways with the heaviest traffic flows, say, I-10 and Claiborne Avenue. His map illustrated that children in inner-city neighborhoods including Central City, the Irish Channel, Treme, Bywater, Upper Ninth Ward and Algiers, were daily exposed to more than 900 ppm lead -- more than twice the EPA limit. The EPA estimates that 12 million children in U.S. urban environments are exposed to risks from 10 million tons of lead residues from leaded gas and lead-based paint.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently stated there is no safe level for lead exposure.

In 1999, economic consultant Rick Nevin published research linking children’s exposure to lead with violent crimes that those same individuals committed as adolescents.

“Emissions from automobiles explain 90 percent of the variation in violent crime in America,” Nevin stated in an article published in Environmental Research.

The dangers of lead in gasoline have been recognized since the 1920s when the Du Pont Corporation began producing Tetraethyl lead (TEL) as an additive to reduce engine knock. Though several factory workers died from lead poisoning, the compound was deemed safe. By 1936, 90 percent of gasoline sold in the United States contained lead, peaking in the 1970s.

In 1979, Herbert Needleman, a psychiatrist at the University of Pittsburgh, compared lead levels of 194 adolescents arrested in Pittsburgh with lead levels of 146 high-school adolescents: The arrested youths had lead levels that were four times higher, according to a July 8, 2007 story in The Washington Post.

"Impulsivity means you ignore the consequences of what you do," Needleman said. “Lead decreases the ability to tell yourself, ‘If I do this, I will go to jail,’” the Post quoted Needleman.

It is also interesting to note that anyone who carries a gun probably has a high lead level. “It is because of the vaporization as the bullet is spinning out of the pistol,” Mielke said. “It is in the scientific literature.”

Since the 1920s, millions of children have been poisoned by lead -- and many Baby Boomers may experience dementia resulting from their exposure -- but the CDC called the problem “entirely preventable.”

Early intervention is key to solving the problem. The CDC strongly encourages public-private sector partnerships to prevent lead poisoning before it affects youth.

“The City of New Orleans could apply for two HUD lead remediation grants that would bring millions of dollars into the city's coffers to make contaminated housing lead safe and protect countless babies, children and families from potential brain damage and serious disabilities,” said Beth Butler, board president of Lead Safe America Foundation.

“Door-to-door canvassing to identify the homes with lead contamination and children with lead in their blood needs to immediately be conducted in the city's neighborhoods with the highest health disparities,” she added.

Meanwhile, Mielke continues gathering samples for his updated lead soil map. There has been significant improvement throughout the city, but so much more needs to be done.

“I want to do something. I want to be an active participant changing the world so it's a better world for our children. Now I'm a grandpa, so I'm paying attention to my children's children,” he said.

Mary Rickard has been a regular contributor to the New Orleans Times-Picayune and the New Orleans Advocate, as well as newspapers and wire services in other locales. Feel free to send her comments or critiques at [email protected]