In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Lead and Crime

  • Introduction
  • Journals
  • Sources and Uses of Lead
  • An Industrial History of Lead
  • The Spatial Distribution of Lead
  • Lead and Neurotoxicity

Criminology Lead and Crime
Kimberly L. Barrett
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 February 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 November 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0096


Lead (Pb) has been described as one of the most prominent and widely studied neurotoxins to date. A robust literature has developed documenting associations between lead exposure and impaired cognition and altered human behavior. Cognitive deficits associated with lead exposure range from diminished IQ, impulsivity, memory problems, and mood disorders, to name a few. These relationships have been demonstrated in studies involving animals (including fruit flies, monkeys, and rats), and lead has demonstrated to be harmful for both children and adults. The scientific community has not reached consensus on a “safe” lead body burden, and persistent, adverse effects have been found at blood lead levels as low as 3 μg/dL. In recent years, these findings have drawn the attention of criminologists interested in studying predictors of violence, aggression, and antisocial behavior. Lead’s ability to alter cognition suggests lead exposure as a potential predictor of criminal behavior. Empirical assessments of lead and crime have demonstrated associations between lead exposure and homicide rates, delinquency, and violent crime. These studies have important implications for crime theory, as lead exposure may set into motion factors long recognized by criminologists to accompany crime and delinquency (e.g., low academic achievement, impulsivity). Further, the lead and crime connection has important implications for criminal justice policymakers, as protecting individuals from lead exposure may prove to be a promising direction in crime reduction. This article serves to highlight key readings across disciplines that are pertinent to examining the relationship between lead and crime. As such, this article opens with a background of the sources and industrial utility of lead, the industrial history of lead, and a brief listing of journals where interested readers may turn for additional works studying the neurotoxic properties of lead. Next, sources that study the spatial distribution of lead are presented. This is followed by a review of sources studying the relationship between lead and neurotoxicity, with special attention given to lead’s association with emotional behavioral disorders, ADHD, and intellectual functioning. To elucidate possible causal pathways from lead exposure to crime, studies testing associations between emotional behavioral disorders, ADHD, intellectual functioning, and crime are subsequently provided. Next, articles and book chapters that integrate lead into theories of violence and criminal behavior are presented. Finally, this article concludes with studies that have tested the association between lead and crime at both individual and aggregate levels. Assessments that support and reject the relationship between lead and crime have been included.


Compared to other disciplines, mainstream criminology journals have just begun to publish articles examining lead exposure and crime. Researchers interested in this association may find publications relating to the study of lead and crime in medical, public health, and epidemiology journals. In this brief section, a short list of journals that have published numerous studies on the impacts of lead exposure (criminal behaviors and otherwise) are listed, as to provide interested readers journal outlets for access to additional studies. These journals include, though certainly are not limited to, Environmental Health Perspectives, NeuroToxicology, and Neurotoxicology and Teratology.

  • Environmental Health Perspectives. 1972–.

    Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP) is a monthly peer-reviewed journal, produced with the support of the US National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. EHP’s states its mission is to facilitate the discussion of the relationships between the environment and human health, and topical areas include (though are not limited to) epidemiology, environmental justice, and risk assessment.

  • NeuroToxicology. 1979–.

    The aim of NeuroToxicology is given as the publication of high-quality peer reviewed research examining the impact of toxic agents on the nervous system. The journal focuses especially on studies of the neurotoxic impact of chemical hazards, naturally occurring compounds, and/or manufactured drugs.

  • Neurotoxicology and Teratology. 1987–.

    Neurotoxicology and Teratology’s foci include peer-reviewed epidemiological, clinical, and experimental studies that examine the impacts of heavy metals (among numerous other chemical agents) on the healthy functioning of the nervous system. Of particular relevance to the journal’s aims is the association of toxins on behavioral outcomes.

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