"Looney gas" and lead poisoning

Last week, Mother Jones published a really fascinating article arguing that the crime wave that swept through America between the 1960s and 1980s can largely be blamed on leaded gasoline — and the subsequent lead poisoning of an entire generation of Americans. For more background on the dangers of leaded gas, I suggest reading this post by Deborah Blum. Essentially, it's an excerpt from her fantastic book, The Poisoner's Handbook. In it, she tells the story of the history of leaded gas — a substance that was known to be dangerous even in the 1920s — and the conspiracy to sweep that danger under the rug.


  1. OK, can we just cut to the chase and have the gas companies start sending checks to baby boomers for $39.47 and one to the lawyers for $28 kajillion. Price of gas will go up 35 cents for six months and we can all get back to being crazier than we needed to be.

  2. I have to wonder if there were Romans concerned by the use of lead in their plumbing, back in the day?

    1. Yes.

      I was just reading Pete Nash’s Basic Roleplaying: Rome the other day. He mentions that Vitruvius favored ceramic pipes over lead pipes, because of concerns over lead poisoning. He claims that the calcium-rich water tended to reduce the effect, and that the use of lead-based sweeteners was more dangerous than the use of lead pipes. Of course there’s no safe dose.

      “Sapa produced in lead kettles tasted very sweet due to the high acidity of the boiling grape juice dissolving large quantities of the metal from the vessel. This produced lead acetate which had the unusual effect of increasing the sweetness of the syrup’s flavour! Thus sapa was popular as both a preservative and a condiment, but became the major source of lead poisoning in Roman society.”

  3. When I was a college-aged rascal many years ago, I often lived a few blocks from the Ethyl Corporation headquarters and at one point even viewed it from my back deck.

    They had this beautiful mansion atop of a manicured, grass hill.  I routinely mountain biked down their hill, went off a fantastic jump and lovingly destroyed their precious lawn in the process.

    The security would chase me in trucks, which I enjoyed (and they never caught me despite doing this literally hundreds of times).

    The wonderful Ethyl Corporation was also responsible for forcing a homeless shelter out of the area. Never liked those scumbags.

    1. Perhaps the crack epidemic was also part of the lead fueled crime wave?  Mild retardation, poor impulse control, smoking crack? Beating up old ladies to get money for more crack? Synergy!

  4. There’s another wonderful conspiracy theory here. Johnson Matthey were major donors to both Reagan and Thatcher’s administrations. In the 80s, they were looking for new markets for their monopoly on platinum. They hit on car catalytic convertors which then didn’t work with leaded petrol. So two right wing governments could appear green by introducing new more stringent environmental laws while simultaneously rewarding and re-paying their friends with money.

    Meanwhile correlation-causation, http://xkcd.com/552/ obviously! Numerous statistical criticisms of that study.

  5. Wait second. . .  leaded gasoline was around (and the norm) since the 1920s. Why would there be a spike in crime between 1960-1980? It doesn’t make sense to me. Something’s not adding up here.

    1. Say you were 1 or 2 at the time the lead levels spiked. It takes a much smaller dose to seriously do damage to you than a fully-grown adult. Also, your brain is still in a developing state – making you doubly vulnerable to lead’s effects. Once the damage is done, the IQ deficiencies and behavior problems start showing up. Those don’t become actual crime statistics until you’re actually old enough to be a criminal, though. Make sense?

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