Clean water makes houses makes safe communities

If I might take this opportunity to double post, I thought I should leave a citation for something I brought up in class yesterday. It was in response to Beth’s question for the day, “what is necessary for a house?” and she specifically brought up clean water and freedom from lead paint (negative freedom for you there, Jes) as possibilities.

I found Beth’s question particularly stimulating because of some research Justin Behrend, of Geneseo’s History Department, pointed me toward last spring. In the 1990s, FBI statistics began to show a drastic fall in crime rates in the US. Many explanations have been presented for the sudden safety of American communities: stricter punishments exemplified by Rudy Giuliani’s broken window policing, more widespread access to abortion leading to fewer broken families, and even better application of economic theories to law enforcement. Jenna brought up the possibility that this fall in crime rates is more a function of the way the statistics are collected than any real change in criminal behavior, and while there is probably some ‘there’ there, most criminologists agree that the crime rates did fall to some extent.

The theory that Dr. Behrend introduced to me seems even more anachronistic than those other explanations: there was no more lead in the home. More specifically, the theory holds that the 1990’s was when the first generation of people came of age who were not exposed to lead when they were growing up. Lead is known to affect brain development in a number of ways—for example, it can depress the average test score of populations exposed to it on general aptitude tests. Crime—a behavior that involves an extensive series of decisions and judgments—could easily be affected by this biochemical degradation. Indeed, reviews of existing research support the conclusion that exposure to lead contaminants increases crime rates, especially homicide.

All of this makes a wonderful answer to Beth’s question on several levels. Obviously, houses should be places of safety and nurturing, and any poisonous substances would detract from the ability to perform this function. Take Back The Land affirms this idea with its first principle.

However, houses also perform a separate function. They contain the family, which many consider to be the foundational unit of all society (most conservatives hold this view, and it has been applied to social issues very problematically in the past. Though I reject any notion of ‘traditional’ being an important quality for a family, and find it wrong-headed to locate the origin of most social problems exclusively in the family, it seems self-evident to me that having a loving person or group of people in your house makes a wide variety of better outcomes more likely.)

If part of the function of houses is to nurture better units for society, then they must be free of lead contaminants, since there is evidence such contaminants biochemically alter the brain to make crime more likely. Not that that should be the only reason to keep lead out of the water supply.

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