Sunday, 13 January 2013

Environmental Racism

“...lead poisoning could be the major cause of the rise and fall of violent crime.”

In a compelling article by George Monbiot of an even stronger piece of research published by Mother Jones, the story of environmental impact on health and wellbeing takes an insidious turn - one that is new to me and worthy of sharing, if our arts and health agenda is to evolve with the times and take account of the wider determinants of heath.

We’ve all been aware of the impact of our industrialised and market-responsive consumer lifestyles on the planet for decades. Yes, there’ll always be those with vested interests who argue against climate change - twisted and self-interested. Research from Mother Jones exposes an entirely new slant on the impact of pollution on a significant public health issue - that of violent crime.

Taking into account numerous scientific papers and exploring the rise and fall of violent crime during the second half of the 20th century and first years of the 21st, it’s proposed, that it wasn’t changes in policing or imprisonment, single parenthood, recession, crack cocaine or the legalisation of abortion, but predominantly by the rise and fall in the use of lead-based paint and leaded petrol, that has had significant impact on violent crime!

Monbiot himself admits that until you read the well-cited evidence, the whole thing sounds completely implausible. The research between “cities, states and nations show that the rise and fall in crime follows, with a roughly 20-year lag, the rise and fall in the exposure of infants to trace quantities of lead,” with Monbiot being able to find only one critical attack of the evidence - and that was “sponsored by the Ethyl Corporation, which happens to have been a major manufacturer of the petrol additive tetraethyl lead.”

The premiss is this: lead has been withdrawn first from paint and then from “petrol at different times in different places (beginning in the 1970s in the US in the case of petrol and the 1990s in many parts of Europe), yet, despite these different times and different circumstances, the pattern is the same: violent crime peaks around 20 years after lead pollution peaks. The researchers have taken great pains to correct for the obvious complicating variables: social, economic and legal factors. One paper found, after 15 variables had been taken into account, a four-fold increase in homicides in US counties with the highest lead pollution. Another discovered that lead levels appeared to explain 90% of the difference in rates of aggravated assault between US cities. A study in Cincinnati finds that young people prosecuted for delinquency are four times more likely than the general population to have high levels of lead in their bones. A meta-analysis (a study of studies) of 19 papers found no evidence that other factors could explain the correlation between exposure to lead and conduct problems among young people.”

I wonder, how many of us were told as children, not to chew on our pencil because of the lead, or else grew up wary of lead paint? We’ve known about lead poisoning for decades, so is it “really so surprising that a highly potent nerve toxin causes behavioural change?” The thought of my own drinking water through lead pipes for the first 18 years of my life fills me with a little shudder. My parents constantly naively prompting us, even then with, ‘let the water run before you drink any.’

Lead is so toxic that it is unsafe at any level, its impacts are permanent and devastating. “Behavioural effects were first documented in 1943: infants who had tragically chewed the leaded paint off the railings of their cots were found, years after they had recovered from acute poisoning, to be highly disposed to aggression and violence.”

With the reduction and removal of lead based products from our everyday lives, this may seem like old news, or an irrelevant story, but this reporting offers us interesting food for thought - one around inequalities: the other about the only producer of tetraethyl lead on the planet - based here in the North West.

Monbiot describes the inner city lives of people living in un-renovated, inner city housing in the US, where people lived by busy roads and in degrading property, citing research that shows “African Americans have been subjected to higher average levels of lead poisoning than white Americans. One study, published in 1986, found that 18% of white children but 52% of black children in the US had over 20 milligrammes per decilitre of lead in their blood; another that, between 1976 and 1980, black infants were eight times more likely to be carrying the horrendous load of 40mg/dl. This, two papers propose, could explain much of the difference in crime rates between black and white Americans, and the supposed difference in IQ trumpeted by the book The Bell Curve.” The implications of this research for crime statistics, public health and prejudice are huge.

Finally, Monbiot points the finger to the last global producer of tetraethyl lead, who he alleges export to Afghanistan, Algeria, Burma, Iraq, North Korea, Sierra Leone and Yemen, “countries afflicted either by chaos or by governments who don’t give a damn about their people.” The company Innospec is based right here in the North West at Ellesmere Port. 
Banned from sale in the United Kingdom. Furthermore he reports that, ”in 2010 the company admitted that, under the name Associated Octel, it had paid millions of dollars in bribes to officials in Iraq and Indonesia to be allowed to continue, at immense profit, selling tetratethyl lead. Through an agreement with the British and US courts, Innospec was let off so lightly that Lord Justice Thomas complained that “no such arrangement should be made again.” God knows how many lives this firm has ruined. The UK government tells me that because tetraethyl lead is not on the European list of controlled exports, there is nothing to prevent Innospec from selling to whoever it wants. There’s a term for this: environmental racism.”

Just think about the implications of this research - the reality of people’s lives affected yet again by poverty, by greed and by prejudice. Monbiot points to the greater crime - that people’s lives have been destroyed by crime, both as perpetrators and victims. How much violence - lives imprisoned and lives destroyed, could have been avoided.

Please click on the lead symbol above for the full Monbiot article. The film below is a different, but nevertheless related and important story.
I am indebted to Dr N for drawing this one to our attention.

Networking Event
RECOVERY: Creativity, Culture and the Arts
Thursday 7th February 4:30 till 7:00

This is the first free networking event of 2013 here at MMU and I’m thrilled to say that European partners from the I AM - art as an agent for change! will be present to share something of their stories, plus you’ll have the opportunity to share some of your practice!

If you’re interested in recovery from substance misuse as an artist, health professional or if you’ve been through an arts based process as part of your own recovery and you’d like to share your practice or experience, register for the event by emailing us at  I imagine that people can share their stories for about 10 minutes each. For regular attenders, you’ll be shocked to know, I’ll be offering food and drinks too!!! SHOCKER. 

Registering your interest doesn't guarantee you a place and we’ll be in touch with you nearer the time with confirmation and venue details.

But, I hear you ask, what on earth is I AM - art as an agent for change! ? It’s a three year project that brings together people involved in the recovery movement from the UK, Italy and Turkey to explore how the arts might just play a part in recovery from substance misuse. The brainchild of curator Mark Prest and funded by Grundtvig, the project was born as a response to the European Health Commissions revelation that "Europe has the highest proportion of drinkers in the world, the highest levels of alcohol consumption per capita and a high level of alcohol-related harm. Harmful and hazardous alcohol consumption is a net cause of 7.4% of all ill-health and early death in the EU.” In 2010 the UK Government released its new recovery focused Drug Strategy - a move away from previous maintenance provision. Recent UK National Treatment Agency figures show an increase of people deemed as “in recovery”: some 27,969 people were classed as recovering in 2010/11; 18% more than the previous year.  Accompanying this is an emerging recovery movement, as illustrated by the inaugural Welsh Recovery Walk in September 2011 in which an estimated 2,000 people participated. In Liverpool, the city’s first alcohol-free recovery bar, The Brink, opened with 75% of staff themselves in recovery.

The European monitoring centre for drugs and drug addiction (EMCDDA) estimates that drug abuse in the EU accounts for 6500-9000 deaths (by overdose) a year. Addiction is high on the political agenda, particularly the impact of alcohol abuse and its societal impact, so the time is right to re-imagine how art and culture might be used as a catalyst for change to explore new pathways to recovery and develop new models of good practice. This arts project will explore how creativity, culture and the arts can be offer us a universal language.  I AM is a European Lifelong Learning project that looks at different cultural experiences of addiction and recovery using art as a universal language. Alongside Arts for Health the partner organisations include:

Portraits of Recovery
Portraits of Recovery is an innovative, unique and new visual arts organisation with a core belief that arts, culture and creativity can be transformational in and of itself and can act as a new tool for recovery from addiction. 

The Italian Federation Department's Operators and Addiction's Services is advancing addiction as a science, as a profession and as a means of promoting health, education, prevention and human welfare. 

Cooperativa Incontro offers a full service of drug treatment programs and follows an individualized approach to drug and alcohol rehabilitation. This means setting each patient up with a drug treatment program that has been created and based on their particular needs and addiction issues. These programs will integrate a balance of individual and group therapy sessions, holistic healing therapies, social activities, and diet and nutrition courses.

Kütahya Green Crescent Branch is a non-profit and non-governmental organization that empowers young people and adults with factual information about drugs so they can make informed decisions against different kinds of addictions including alcohol, tobacco, drug, gambling etc. that erode the mental and physical health of young people and the community. 
So if you want to share something and lear about other peoples practice - and find out a bit more about the I AM project, register now at 

Thank you as ever for stopping by...C.P.

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