Lead, the EPA, and the Far-Reaching Benefits of Government Regulation


By Russell Glass

Editor’s Note: This guest post was contributed by Russell Glass, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and author of the new children’s book “Voting With a Porpoise.”

In a previous post, I described how to talk politics to people who disagree with you:

1) tell compelling stories that 2) invoke at least one important morality and 3) talk about existing intuitions to open the user up to hearing more.

In this post, I’m going to try to put those learnings together to create a narrative advocating for strong government regulations to protect the environment that will resonate with those who don’t agree that we need it.

In the 1960s through the early 1990s, there was a significant growth in crime in the United States. During that period, violent crime grew nearly four-fold between 1960 and its peak in 1991. Then starting in 1991, the U.S. violent crime rates began an extraordinary drop — from 1.9 million crimes to less than 1.2 million in 2014,  There were a few reasons for this, but one of the most interesting is the increase of lead exposure in the 1950s and 1960s and the subsequent reduction of lead exposure in the 1970s and 1980s.

The evidence that lead exposure contributed to lower IQ scores goes back to a robust and now famous 1979 study in Nature. Further study of the role of lead exposure in the brain notes increases in impulsivity and social aggression as well as the possibility of developing attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Those conditions influenced behavioral choices, with examples including having poor job performance, beginning a pattern of substance abuse, increases in teenage pregnancy, and criminal tendencies.

A 2007 report published by The B.E. Journal of Economic Analysis & Policy, authored by Jessica Wolpaw Reyes of Amherst College, found that between 1992 and 2002 the phase-out of lead from gasoline in the U.S. “was responsible for approximately a 56% decline in violent crime.” Reyes concluded that “the phase-out of lead and the legalization of abortion appear to have been responsible for significant reductions in violent crime rates.”

It is now clear that the reduction of lead in our environment has driven down crime rates and made our country a far safer place. But, the automotive and other industries were adamant that lead was safe, claiming that these children were “sub-normal to start with” and regulation would be too expensive. So how did we get it done? In 1970, a Democratic Congress created and Republican President Richard Nixon formed the Environmental Protection Agency. Along with lead, the EPA also worked to lower emissions of hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen oxides by 90 percent in only a few years. Over the next few decades, lead was slowly phased out, culminating in a complete ban in 1990.

So, what happened here? Put simply, we are a far safer country because a bipartisan group of lawmakers stood up for children and against the chemical industry, and by the 1990s lead had been completely removed from gasoline.

According to a study in 2002, levels of lead found in human blood were reduced more than 80 percent from 1976 to 1999 in American children one to five years old, and these children had IQs that were, on average, 2.2-4.7 points higher than comparable groups in the 1970s. In addition to the lowered crime rates, in terms of economic impact, the authors estimated that each IQ point raises worker productivity 1.76-2.38 percent. The estimated economic benefit for each year’s newborns ranges from $110 billion to $319 billion.

This simple environmental intervention worked miracles: lead levels in children’s blood dropped in lockstep with declining levels of lead in gasoline. The phaseout, which began in the late 1970s, was responsible for over half of the drop in crime that occurred in the 1990s.

As a business leader, I am a big proponent of free markets and don’t believe that government regulations are always a good thing. However, free markets don’t always take huge downstream impacts like childhood development and significantly higher crime rates into account. The only way to police industry to ensure they are acting in the best interests of our nation is through a strong government regulatory body like the EPA. They are there to ensure industry isn’t harming our kids, lands and country in a way that far exceeds the value which is being created.

Photo: Tim Vrtiska



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