January 24, 2013

How to test the Lead-Lowers-IQ theory in the real world

My recent Taki Magazine article considered the strengths and weaknesses of Kevin Drum's Mother Jones article arguing that leaded gasoline caused the 1960s social decay by lowering IQ and impulse control. The issue is not whether or not lead is bad for you. It is. The question is how much should we worry about lead in the soil, in old buildings, in products, and so forth. Unfortunately, we don't have a lot of good real world studies. 

I suggested that one way to test this would be to focus on specific locations with notoriously high levels of lead contamination. For example, here are 13 lead pollution Superfund cleanup sites highlighted by the EPA.

My column elicited the following suggestion from commenter Billyjoe:
To test this, you could track down state dept. or Army records and then compare lead levels in country A (where the brats were posted) with later school results. It's a good group to study because they're randomly assigned to posts or bases and come from same s-e background.

Using Department of Defense schools for studies is an excellent idea, not only because we have a lot of naturally occurring experiments available to us because American children are moved around the globe semi-randomly at the Pentagon's whim, but because the Pentagon also has in its files the I.Q. score of at least one parent of each child in the DoD schools (i.e., the military's AFQT enlistment test is, functionally, a heavily g-loaded IQ test). Having parents' IQ scores is school research utopia. (It's extremely rare in social science research to have a parent's IQ scores -- the only example I can think of offhand is that the NLSY-79 used in The Bell Curve has the AFQT scores for young people in 1980 and now has given IQ tests to several thousand children of the NLSY-79 sample.)

Some DoD schools are in highly urban areas that had a lot of exhaust emissions from leaded gasoline, and others are in extremely empty areas.

Also, this DoD school idea could be combined with my localized-lead-pollution idea. When many military bases were shut down after victory in the Cold War, huge amounts of money were spent studying how badly contaminated each base's soil was with toxins, such as lead. Some of these bases up for closure were in desirable real estate markets, and a big question was how much it would cost to clean up all the scary chemicals the military emitted over the years before people would buy condos there. 

A huge amount of data on how badly contaminated military bases were by lead is available, and a huge amount of information about school performance of children who grew up on various bases are available, too.

If Congress gave the Rand Corporation $10 million to analyze this, we could have a pretty definitive answer.


Anonymous said...

Night of the Living Lead.

dearieme said...

I'm fairly confident that I read once that there are no signs of lead poisoning in the public in Broken Hill, the major lead-silver-zinc mining town in New South Wales. Among the workers in the mines, I don't know.

Anyway, what I propose is you gather the data for blood levels of lead and symptoms of lead poisoning in US lead-mining towns. Or, since it must already have been gathered, you tell us about it.

Libertarian Realist said...

The Chinese suffer from some of the worst air pollution in the world. Asian-Americans, I believe, disproportionately inhabit urban areas with relatively high levels of pollutants. That must be why their IQs aren't 200.

Anonymous said...

If crime has gone up with automobile lead contamination with a delay of 23 years, reflecting the delay to criminal maturity, then, in the same areas, IQ of entering school children should go down with the mean lead values since birth. The IQ data should not be corrected for the Flynn effect. Is there a school system where such data are gathered?

Obviously the analysis should control for race.
Robert Hume

Anonymous said...

How about check bling blings for lead content?

Anonymous said...

At a toxic waste site, even if there's lots of lead in the ground and in dumps that lead doesn't necessarily get into the bodies of residents; whereas atmospheric lead from automobile exhaust certainly does.

It might get into the water supply, but it would be necessary to have measurements of the water and ideally of at least some residents' blood to be sure.

Of course, if it's well-known that there was lots of lead in the smoke coming from a factory that might be pretty definitive.

I think it's also worth considering, comparing Whites and Asians to Blacks for example that the effect from an equal amount of lead in the different populations might not be the same if there is a different genetic propensity for violence in the different races. This may have bearing in Japan.

Robert Hume

Anonymous said...

"The Chinese suffer from some of the worst air pollution in the world. Asian-Americans, I believe, disproportionately inhabit urban areas with relatively high levels of pollutants. That must be why their IQs aren't 200."

Modern Chinese gasoline probably doesn't contain lead. The large automobile population is quite recent.. Most of the pollution in large Chinese cities comes from small coal fires used for cooking and heating.

Most Chinese-Americans have arrived in the US since lead has been removed from gasoline and from paint.

Robert Hume

Anonymous said...

You want equality? I have a better idea. Take a lead pipe and beat white kids over the head with it.

Ex Submarine Officer said...

Here is an enormous example of how carefully government stewards the environment and citizen's health.


Between the legacy of communist and western governments absolutely befouling the environments, I'm astonished by greens' continuing faith in government stewardship of the environment.

Dwight C. said...

Well, you know, the best way to do these studies are with human subjects, and since we can all agree that straight Southern White Christians are evil demons responsible for all the deviltry that has ever occurred and will ever occur into the future; they can serve the good for all the multicultural rainbow by having their kids randomly assigned to subjected to different levels of lead (including a control group of zero lead) and seeing the results. A couple of million kids should give a pretty good sample size, and we could finally have proof that it is lead that is causing black failures. And if not, well, we've allowed whites to finally take a step towards repaying the debt for all the evil they have caused since the Big Bang.

Anonymous said...

I'm aware that this is probably a monumentally stupid question, but why are the children of these soldiers always referred to as Army "brats"?

Rob said...

The only reliable way to test any such hypothesis would be to do a medical test that would show the show the level of lead absorption earlier in life - a bone test, perhaps? The whole subject presents a bewildering array of variables that can send the results off in any direction unless the body levels of lead are beyond dispute. Just to take one example - absorption of lead depends on the level of Vitamin D in the body and therefore people with greater exposure to sunlight are more at risk. So the same levels of lead in the environment could have different effects in Chicago and New Orleans, for example.

blondie said...

"I'm aware that this is probably a monumentally stupid question, but why are the children of these soldiers always referred to as Army "brats"?"

Having never lived among them, you couldn't possibly know what terrors these children raised in an authoritarian-darwinian environment can get up to.

Mottoes to live by such as:

"Dog eat dog." "Kill or be Killed."

come to mind.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Rob, and the fact that the lead poisoning can cause any number of symptoms that don't translate into violent behavior. That being said, I think Chicago & New Orleans are both known for high crime rates, especially murder. Did you really think this example through carefully?

Caledonian said...

Japan isn't a good example because of their traditionally high standards of hygiene. Levels of lead in the blood there don't correlate well with lead dust in the local environment - at least partly because of the traditions of taking off shoes when entering a home or restaurant and washing hands before eating.

JR said...

My comment:


Anonymous said...

Going by Pinker's homicide graphs that would imply a huge reduction in lead in England between 1300 and 1900.

Anonymous said...

"I'm aware that this is probably a monumentally stupid question, but why are the children of these soldiers always referred to as Army "brats"?"

Inheriting from their parents a higher proportion of the traits most likely to incline people to the military?