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Some pollution costs

While I was working in Beijing during 2010 some of the worst air pollution ever struck that city.  It seems that these pollution records have been broken over the past few days with the thickest ever blanket of  PM 2.5 particulates covering much of north east China – the video clip in this story promotes a good understanding.  This fine-grained pollution, which is linked to the choking levels of motor vehicle traffic in larger cities, is very damaging to heath.

In an unrelated story the health and crime consequences of lead pollution are being revisited.  It has long been argued that lead pollution causes brain damage and hence educational disadvantage. I remember such claims being raised in Bangkok when I lived there in the 1980s when leaded fuels were used.  Now there is evidence that, with a 20-year lag, higher than average exposure to lead increases criminality.   This explained the baby boomer crime surge and the subsequent decline in crime rates with a 20-year lag that followed use of unleaded petrol. I am always cautious about such claims – earlier statistical work by the Freakonomics phonies linked the upsurge in US crime to changes in the abortion laws that meant more unwanted children survived.  This work has now been discredited.  The connection between lead pollution and crime however does look more serious.

2 comments to Some pollution costs

  • conrad

    As far as I can tell, all of this lead-pollution is the sole and only cause of the drop in crime story comes entirely from a small number of studies that show there is some correlation between the two and a few qualitative observations which are confounded with SES (like looking at places cars belch out lots of pollution), yet not a word about effect size of these studies has been mentioned.

    Given that crime seems to have fallen in half in many places (Aus, the UK, the US…), it suggests that the effect size really must be huge. You could easily test this by looking across countries, since the phase-out of lead in petrol occurred at different times (probably even within country and across states). If this is true, the lag should be obvious.

    Until that happens (or better evidence is provided), I’m going to put it into the iodine deficiency reduces NAPLAN scores basket which came out a few days ago (which presumably should correlate with crime also). I’m not saying here that there’s no effect — lead is really bad for your health, just that people really need to give better evidence before making such claims.

  • Jim Rose

    Bangkok also has air pollution issues. When I visited in 1997 in the hot season, its atmosphere was almost chewy. the air became more breathable with each step away from the highway (Rama 4). Your throat became dirty and needed water to clean it every hour.

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