Photo by 53Hujanen, Flickr CC

It has been over two years since the Flint lead water crisis came to light. Today, many in Flint remain skeptical about the quality of the water and residents continue to push for better water infrastructure and safety standards. We now know that lead exposure has a multitude of negative health impacts, and some even argue that the removal of lead from gasoline in 1970 contributed to the great crime decline. Recent research by Robert Sampson and Alix Winter tests this connection by examining if lead exposure is connected to delinquency and arrest in adolescence.

Sampson and Winter use data from the Project on Human Development in Chicago, a representative sample of children and their caregivers in the mid-1990s. In this study, they follow a group of 254 individuals from infancy to age 21. They examine blood lead levels, official arrest records, and caregiver-reported antisocial behavior. By following these individuals over two decades, the researchers are able to observe possible effects of lead exposure over time.

Sampson and Winter find that lead exposure is directly linked to antisocial behavior, like destructive outbursts, in adolescence. This relationship stands even when accounting for a variety of individual, caregiver, and neighborhood characteristics, including the participant’s mental health and impulsivity. While the authors do not find a direct connection between lead exposure and arrest, previous research tells us that antisocial behavior is related to arrests for many different types of crimes. Therefore, those exposed to lead in their childhoods will likely face increased interaction with the criminal justice system, due to lead’s toxic effects — specifically increased antisocial behavior.

Sampson and Winter argue that toxic inequality — unequal exposure to toxins, like lead — may shape the unequal distribution of crime in neighborhoods and cities throughout the United States. In this case, lead poisoning may explain how one dimension of social inequality contributes to crime and criminalization. Flint’s crisis highlighted how environmental hazards are concentrated in disadvantaged communities, and this study further demonstrates that unequal exposure to toxic living conditions can have long-reaching consequences for the families and their children that live in these areas.