Home' Trinidad and Tobago Guardian : July 27th 2014 Contents A26
Sunday Guardian www.guardian.co.tt July 27, 2014
In Guyana last week, Alvy
Richmond was knifed to
death. Why? Alvy told his
sister s boyfriend not to take so
much time in the bathroom,
because he needed a pee. A
quick, impulsive quarrel; then
blood, tears and a funeral.
Murder rates are up right
across the Caribbean. It s not
just Morvant-Laventille, not just
Trinidad, and not all guns. Some
killings stem from drug feuds or
robberies. Other times, people
just run on a short fuse.
Prof Gerard Hutchinson, head
of the Department of Clinical
Medical Sciences at UWI, thinks
our history of leaded gas is a big
part of the problem.
In which case, murders should
trend down, starting soon---and
with a big drop around 2020.
Yes, you heard that right. It s
not just drug gangs, Cepep
tal Protection and Enhancement
Programme) or absent fathers.
Says Hutchinson: "One bio-
logical factor which accumulat-
ing evidence shows is a likely
contributor to crime and vio-
lence is lead poisoning." Not on
its own; but in a complex whirl
of psychological and social
That view is backed by a
truckload of academic research.
Tetraethyl lead was added to
motor fuel from the 1920s to
improve performance, in place
of less damaging additives such
Lead from vehicle exhausts
found its way into roadside
dust---and then our bodies. We
breathed it, ingested it with
food, absorbed it through the
skin. Once lead is in the body, it
stays there. There s lead in water
pipes, older paints, car batteries,
burning garbage---but the big
source has been motor fuel.
There s a worldwide back-
ground presence---from the
1940s, geoscientists found lead-
ed snow on the Greenland ice
cap. In city streets with increas-
ing traffic, lead reached devas-
Hutchinson says with too
much lead: "We can see reduced
attention span, loss of working
memory, increased irritability
In children with high lead lev-
els, MRI scans show a loss of
grey matter in brain areas linked
to impulse control, emotional
regulation and decision-making.
Sounds like a crime risk?
A study in Cincinnati tracked
250 children born from 1979 to
1984. Blood lead was measured
in the pregnant mother, then at
six-month intervals to the age
of six. As adults, those with
higher childhood lead levels
were more likely to be arrested
for violent crime.
A study of six US cities found
higher rates for assault in neigh-
bourhoods with dense traffic.
Another US study links murder
rates to extreme concentrations
of environmental lead.
The US phased out leaded gas
from 1973. The process was
close to complete by 1985. Aver-
age lead levels in the population
dropped from 16 microgrammes
per decilitre to only three.
Today s official danger level is
America s baby-boomers and
their slightly younger siblings
got plenty lead in their pre-
school years. In the 1980s, when
they reached their late teens and
early 20s, crime rates soared.
The lead-free generation
which followed broke that trend.
In 1990, those born in 1973
reached their dangerous late
teens. From then on, US crime
A careful study by Jessica
Reyes of the US National Bureau
for Economic Research tracks
the data. She looks also at the
abortion trend we ve read about
It s not just in the US. Studies
show the same trend in Britain,
Canada, France, Australia, Fin-
land, Italy, Germany and New
Zealand. Twenty-plus years after
lead-free gas, violent crime
starts to slide.
Brazil banned leaded gas from
1989. The murder rate in São
Paulo fell from 69 per 100,000
in 1999 to 12 in 2011: a 20-year
In New York, Giuliani took
credit for the crime drop. But
the lead ban did the heavy lift-
ing. The success story was the
Don t want to take my word?
A useful check is Crimes of
Lead by Lauren Wolf in Febru-
ary s Chemical and Engineering
News. There s also a readable
piece by Kevin Drum in the
Jan/Feb Mother Jones. Both have
on-line links to research papers.
Locally, I m grateful to Valentine
Smith and Shereen Ali for airing
the topic in Newsday last year.
So where does that leave us?
It was all leaded gas until the
late 1990s. Traffic levels soared.
Unleaded was there as a
minority option from 1994.
Industry sources say the big
switch was 2002. Unleaded was
unavailable from 2005. Better
late than never. If we re on
trend, murder rates should fall
fast from around 2020.
Lead poisoning and impulsive
behaviour could be driving more
than the murder rate. Trigger-
happy cops, bad-mouthed
mothers, no-behaviour children,
hellfire preachers, speeding
motorists...do they fit the pic-
Academics need to research
possible links between lead,
crime and other social problems,
here in the Caribbean.
Hutchinson suggests study
formats to investigate the link
between lead exposure and
behaviour, and outcomes such as
school or work performance,
neuropsychological tests for
impulsivity, personal relation-
ships---not just criminality.
It s easy to think of other
questions---some more physical
than social science.
How much lead was there in
Caribbean motor fuel---more or
less than in other countries?
How much residual lead is there
near urban roads? How much
are today s children taking in?
Do some neighbourhoods need
an intensive clean-up, even full
This week, amidst the hor-
ror of reports of the spate
of child abuse in this
country, I have decided to defer
part two of the article on Sarah
Beckett, the British-born artist in
Perplexed foreigners say our
politicians rarely participate in any
developmental project unless it s
linked with a PR event which
allows them to dress up for a
Now, apart from the daily fare
of bullet-riddled youth, something
else grabs our attention. We are
turning against our children. The
headlines of the last few days say
have been raped; that there are
reports of abuse at the St
Michael s School for Boys; that
mothers are lashing at their chil-
dren with shovels and threats to
Our primitive, lazy response is a
call for blood: Hang them high.
Hang them all. Our policemen---
with their increasingly military
armour---are beginning to look like
killers in computer games. But do
those big guns prevent abuse, pre-
vent violence, or do they aggran-
dise it? We look fearfully at these
men in combat gear who, in igno-
rance of their role as peacekeepers,
revel in their costume and power
But what is the solution?
Sadly, the solution requires sus-
tainable work, behind-the-scenes
work, which is something for
which we are not built.
We love First World ideas---hos-
pitals that are like hotels; special
schools that encourage critical
thinking; teachers colleges; music
literacy schools; monuments to
great statesmen; Nobel prizes for
science and literature; a literacy-,
art- and reading-based culture;
hallowed libraries of great univer-
sities; cobbled streets of beautifully
laid out cities with flowers on
lanterns; degrees in social services;
the joy of quick service at a coffee
shop; the aesthetics of heritage
buildings; the convenience of
Internet grocery shopping; the
freedom of feeling relatively safe
walking downtown in a city.
We love all that. We even adore
Obama s forward thinking on
issues such as global warming and
gay marriage. We love Michelle O
for encouraging America to be
healthier. We love that GPs in the
UK have to do compulsory ongo-
ing education; that their perform-
ance review is based on prevention
of disease rather than expensive
cures. We love all that, and talk
about it like it s the man on the
What do we have here? Fear;
murder; rat-infested hospitals;
400,000 functionally illiterate
people; 40-year-old rusty WASA
pipes which will only be changed
when they disintegrate and flood
our cities. We are the third-fattest
country in the world. We have one
of the highest rates of heart dis-
ease, hypertension and diabetes.
We re an entire culture based on
evading hard work---three genera-
tions of variations of the menac-
ingly-led Community-Based Envi-
ronmental Protection and
Enhancement Programme. We
We re among the most polluted
in the world on a flammable,
unregulated oil-and-gas industrial
estate. We re tumbling down the
transparency index. And generally,
we offer sour, pedantic, slow serv-
ice, be it in coffee shop, bank or
Some people say they wish it
were Carnival all year round.
Well, guess what? It is.
We are a country that s always
on show. Our outer layers are tin-
sel that falls apart when we go
home. Without our glitter and
shields, we are sad, egotistical,
naked leaders who don t like to
look at ourselves.
There is a reason for this. Sus-
tainable development in this coun-
try is as dirty an expression as "f-
-- off." It s boring. When
say: "Look, you need to create a
degree in social services at UWI;
you need to identify 500 families
who will be willing to take in chil-
dren from institutions and give
them a financial incentive to do
so. You need to de-institutionalise,
rather than box in, children who
have been orphaned, abandoned,
abused, or whose parents are in
jail. You need to rehabilitate them
and integrate them into society as
productive civic citizens"---that s
another f--- word.
We need to give financial incen-
tives to unemployed single moth-
ers to send their children to
school, and to social workers to
protect and nurture our children.
Who has time for that? There is
no PR value on it. No need to
There are all kinds of dress-up.
There is PR dress-up and there is
We are waiting to explode like a
dumb computer game.
Why money for Soca Warriers
now? Dress up. PR.
Why more money for soca and
chutney stars every year? Dress
Why statues of calypsonians and
not a single one dedicated to a
statesman, or a man of letters?
Dress up. PR. Playing not just to
the gallery, but to the lowest com-
mon denominator, has weakened
our developmental muscles.
All we can manage to do is
dress up and allow the cameras in
to mask the rising stench of slop-
py, lazy, hubris-filled, corrupt self-
Meanwhile, some child is being
abused quietly somewhere, every-
It is said the mark of a truly
civilised society is demonstrated
by how we treat our most vulner-
We have turned ourselves into
some kind of perpetual show of
Minshall s Carnival of Danse
T&T: AN ENDLESS DANSE MACABRE
LEAD, GAS AND MURDER
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