Has lead poisoning driven Pakistan’s epidemic of violence? (updated)

Lead permanently damages young brains

The impact of lead poisoning is devastating, especially just before and after birth:

The nervous system of the fetus and infant is especially susceptible to lead, which can cross the placenta and penetrate the blood-brain barrier. Lead interferes with neuronal migration, cell proliferation and synapse formation during critical periods of early vulnerability. The consequences are loss of intelligence and disruption of behaviour. Because the brain has little capacity for repair, these effects are permanent and untreatable. The most recent research indicates that lead can damage the infant brain even at blood levels as low as 5 m/dl.

Exposure to lead leaves children less able to learn in school and makes them more likely to display aggressive, anti-social and hyperactive behaviour. Do read Kevin Drum’s excellent account of the evidence showing that even low levels of lead poisoning can lead to lower IQs and more violent behaviour.

Lead poisoning may have caused a global surge in violence

In the late 20th century, lead in petrol caused a significant increase in lead poisoning. And as people drove more (and spent more time idling in traffic), levels of violent crime went up, before falling a few decades after unleaded petrol was introduced.

In a 2000 paper (PDF) [Rick Nevin] concluded that if you add a lag time of 23 years, lead emissions from automobiles explain 90 percent of the variation in violent crime in America…

Nevin collected lead data and crime data for Australia and found a close match. Ditto for Canada. And Great Britain and Finland and France and Italy and New Zealand and West Germany. Every time, the two curves fit each other astonishingly well. When I spoke to Nevin about this, I asked him if he had ever found a country that didn’t fit the theory. “No,” he replied. “Not one.”

The worst impact is on cities – and especially on slums

Traffic is worst in cities and people live close to roads. The biggest and most congested roads cut through the poorest parts of these cities. Bad housing lets in more pollution, while children spend more time playing in the streets. Other sources of lead – from paint, pipes etc. – also tend to be worse here.

Violence saw the steepest increase and the steepest decline in cities. Last year, New York celebrated a full day without a murder, assault or any other incident of violent crime.  In 1990, 2245 people were murdered. In 2012, that had fallen to 419. Crime in the UK is now more than 50% below its peak in 1995, with London’s murder rate at a 42 year low.

Lead poisoning could be a significant factor driving Pakistan’s epidemic of violence

In 2002, a study of 430 children in Karachi (from Sadar in the city centre, two suburbs, a rural community, and Baba Island) found that 80% had blood concentrations over 10 mg/dl (twice the level now thought to be ‘safe’) and average levels of 15.6 mg/dl.

The children with the worst lead poisoning lived near busy traffic intersections, had poorly educated parents, lived in houses that opened into prevailing wind, and were more likely to eat food from street vendors. They were also more likely to use traditional remedies or makeup (e.g. surma), with very high concentrations of lead, or to live in houses that use lead paint.

If research linking lead to surging violence holds up, then lead poisoning could explain part of the epidemic of violence Pakistan is currently experiencing, especially in Karachi and other big cities.

Violence in Pakistan might fall rapidly after 2020

The United States started to phase out leaded petrol in the mid-1970s, a process that was substantially complete ten years later.

Pakistan acted later. There were four petrol-producing refineries in Pakistan at the turn of the century. They reduced lead content between 1997 and 2000 and phased it out between 2000 and 2002.

Given that car use and city centre congestion was increasingly rapidly at the time (and continues to do so), children with the highest levels of lead poisoning will be reaching adulthood throughout this decade.

After 2020, however, young adults will have suffered much lower levels of antenatal and infant lead poisoning. Levels of violence could then fall dramatically if they follow the pattern seen in the United States and other developed countries.

We don’t know enough about the impact of lead on Pakistan or other fragile states

There was some research into the impact of lead poisoning around the time Pakistan began to remove leaded petrol from sale, but little ongoing work to understand the impact of lead’s legacy on educational achievement or violent behaviour (that I know of, at least).

I suspect this pattern is repeated for other low and middle income countries, where 99% of the children affected by lead poisoning are believed to live.

Does lead poisoning explain some of the very high levels of violence seen in Karachi and other Pakistani cities? And, if so, how great is the impact likely to be? When do levels of lead exposure suggest ‘peak violence’ is likely to be hit? And what are the policy implications?

The same question could be asked for other fragile and conflict-affected states, each of which will have experienced different levels of pollution in the years where leaded petrol was widely used and will have seen reduced use of leaded fuels start at differing dates.

Update: While the impact of lead on young brains is established, the links between lead poisoning and levels of violence are less well understood. Again, I recommend Kevin Drum’s review, but Scott Firestone and Paul Illing have written useful overviews of the evidence.

Illing points out how few studies we have to rely on and concludes that “this shows how little we know about the neurobehavioural effects of many chemicals and how difficult it is to investigate them.”

I find it staggering that we’re groping in the dark given that this could be one of the worst ever environmental catastrophes – and one that is still unfolding in the fastest growing cities in the world.

China’s transition from object of Western power to rival to it

In our latest #progressivedilemmas article we look at how the left should respond to China’s rise.

During Labour’s last period in government we failed to make responding to illiberal powers one of the organising concepts of British foreign policy and paid the price in Copenhagen, Geneva, and New York. If we want to avoid repeating that mistake, we need to face up to the scale and nature of China’s power. Labour’s future China policy must combine the humility to recognise the UK’s diminished leverage and the confidence to believe the west’s collective capacity to shape the environment in which Beijing makes its choices has not been lost.

The meanest goddamn debate about the UN ever

Academics and policy wonks are mainly mild-mannered folk.  I know that I am.  But occasionally it’s fun to cut loose and have a really nasty debate with an intellectual opponent.  The New Internationalist gave Phil Leech of Liverpool University and me a chance to do just that by asking us to conduct a debate on abolishing the Security Council for their latest issue.  Our debate quickly and entertainingly turned into the IR academic equivalent of professional wresting.

Phil started off by stating the case for the Council’s abolition:

The UN Security Council (UNSC), in its current form, represents an antiquated approach to international politics.

The original intention behind its creation was for it to be an executive arm of the UN, enforcing the will of the international community against rogue states, ensuring compliance with international norms and promoting world peace. However, in reality the Security Council has proven to be Western-centric, overly concerned with the rights and interests of states – rather than that of individual human beings or human societies – and incompatible with the very urgent need to address many of the key issues and challenges of the contemporary world.

I actually agree with a lot of that, but I wasn’t going to admit defeat so easily..

You are right: the Security Council, like life, is not fair. But it was never meant to be.

Time for me to ramp up the battle!

Let’s pursue your proposal: scrap the Council. What, if anything, would you replace it with? A forum for NGOs? Oxfam and Amnesty International would have more humane and edifying debates than China and the US, but what could they deliver? Perhaps we should select 15 entirely random individuals from around the world to debate war and peace in place of the Council’s current members.

Phil strikes back:

You seem to accept both the inherent unfairness of the system and its inefficacies –which, you concede, constitute the politicization of international norms, sometimes at great human cost – merely because of a poverty of creative thought. I am unconvinced.

Ouch!  Me again:

I may not be thinking very creatively, but your alternative adds up to a couple of slogans.

If you want to find out what Phil had to say to that, read through the full multilateral wrestling-match here.  Rest assured that we made up afterwards!

Why Russia might favor humanitarian corridors into Syria

Here’s more exciting Syrian news from the Security Council after last week’s chemical weapons resolution:

The president of the U.N. Security Council said Monday that many members are pressing to follow up on last week’s resolution to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons with a demand that the government allow immediate access for desperately needed humanitarian aid.

Australian Ambassador and council president Gary Quinlan said a draft Security Council statement calls for delivering access in “the most effective ways, including across conflict lines and, where appropriate, across borders from neighboring countries …” if necessary to bypass meddling from President Bashar Assad’s regime in Damascus.

And here is the really striking news:

Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin told The Associated Press that Russia approved of the draft statement on humanitarian aid as well.

Now why on earth would Russia support such a proposal now?  This map suggests one answer:

As the map shows, a majority of border towns and cities are held by rebels or Kurds.  So if the UN tries to open up humanitarian corridors from other countries, the burden will be on the rebels to safeguard them.  There are notable exceptions, like Qusayr.  But Russia can support this initiative safe in the knowledge that (1) it reflects facts on the ground and (2) it may create more headaches for the rebels than for Assad.  Will rebels let aid into government-held areas?

The UN’s struggle for moral authority

I have a 3,000 word essay in Aeon, the online magazine of ideas, on the United Nations and morality. Here’s the opening…

‘We will integrate human rights into the life cycle of all staff.’ This phrase, with its strange mix of bureaucratic and moral ambitions, might sound like a piece of Orwellian doublespeak. In fact it is a sincere statement from a policy paper circulated among senior United Nations staff this summer on the need to renew the organisation’s ‘vision’ in the face of massive human rights violations. UN officials have been despondent over their failure to halt the Syrian war and the organisation’s performance in persistent trouble-spots such as Darfur, so the soul-searching is timely. But will it make any difference?

You can find the answer to that question, and the full article, here.

Did climate change help cause Syria’s civil war?

That’s the argument made by William Polk, a historian who worked on the State Dept’s Policy Planning staff under Kennedy, in a long piece sent to James Fallows at The Atlantic. The whole piece is excellent – a carefully argued weighing of the evidence (which concludes, by the way, that the jury is still very much out on whether the Assad regime was actually responsible for the use of chemical weapons) – but here’s what he has to say about climate change in a section on the conflict’s context:

Syria has been convulsed by civil war since climate change came to Syria with a vengeance. Drought devastated the country from 2006 to 2011.  Rainfall in most of the country fell below eight inches (20 cm) a year, the absolute minimum needed to sustain un-irrigated farming. Desperate for water, farmers began to tap aquifers with tens of thousands of new well.  But, as they did, the water table quickly dropped to a level below which their pumps could lift it.

In some areas, all agriculture ceased.  In others crop failures reached 75%.  And generally as much as 85% of livestock died of thirst or hunger.  Hundreds of thousands of Syria’s farmers gave up, abandoned their farms and fled to the cities and towns in search of almost non-existent jobs and severely short food supplies.  Outside observers including UN experts estimated that between 2 and 3  million of Syria’s 10 million rural inhabitants were reduced to “extreme poverty.”

The domestic Syrian refugees immediately found that they had to compete not only with one another for scarce food, water and jobs, but also with the already existing foreign refugee population.  Syria already was a refuge for quarter of a million Palestinians and about a hundred thousand people who had fled the war and occupation of Iraq.  Formerly prosperous farmers were lucky to get jobs as hawkers or street sweepers.  And in the desperation of the times, hostilities erupted among groups that were competing just to survive.

Of course, academic conflict experts are always sceptical of the notion that a conflict can be attributed to one cause alone. But it’s very hard to argue against the idea that climate change is a very big threat multiplier – see e.g. this paper (pdf) of mine for the World Bank a few years ago, or this terrific report on the Arab Spring and climate change from the Center for American Progress in which Anne-Marie Slaughter, another State Dept Policy Planning veteran, argues that,

Crime-show devotees will be familiar with the idea of a “stressor” — a sudden change in circumstances or environment that interacts with a complicated psychological profile in a way that leads a previously quiescent person to become violent. The stressor is by no means the only cause of the crimes that ensue, but it is an important factor in a complex set of variables that ultimately lead to disaster.

The Arab Spring and Climate Change does not argue that climate change caused the revolutions that have shaken the Arab world over the past two years. But the essays collected in this slim volume make a compelling case that the consequences of climate change are stressors that can ignite a volatile mix of underlying causes that erupt into revolution.

But back to the specific case of Syria – which gets worse. For Polk then describes how the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) made desperate pleas to USAID for humanitarian assistance, warning that Syria was facing a “perfect storm” and “social destruction”, and noting that Syria’s agriculture minister had said publicly that the drought was “beyond our capacity as a country to deal with”.

Instead, USAID’s reaction (set out in a subsequently leaked cable dated November 2008) was to “question whether limited USG resources should be directed toward this appeal at this time”. And, as this FT piece from October 2009 makes clear, the US wasn’t alone in declining to assist: a whole year after FAO’s call for help, UN OCHA was saying that it hadn’t received any money from donors despite seeking $53m in emergency funds.

Meanwhile, the Syrian government – in normal times, a major exporter of wheat – was also making its own catastrophic errors of judgement:

Lured by the high price of wheat on the world market, it sold its reserves. In 2006, according to the US Department of Agriculture, it sold 1,500,000 metric tons or twice as much as in the previous year.  The next year it had little left to export; in 2008 and for the rest of the drought years it had to import enough wheat to keep its citizens alive. So tens of thousands of frightened, angry, hungry and impoverished former farmers flooded constituted a “tinder” that was ready to catch fire.

As a Syrian economist quoted in another FT piece published a year before the first protests observed with eerie prescience, “now we have drought, I hope it will not create political problems”.