This month, Mother Jones published the results of a surprising investigation into the foul effects of lead in the United States. The article claims leaded gasoline caused a wave of crime in the last century. Crime rates dropped once the lead was removed. The author also says lead causes lower IQs and ADHD.

Journalist George Monbiot was skeptical when he first saw the news. After digging up related academic studies, he published a supportive article in TruthOut. He focused on crime, not on ADHD or IQs.

MIT’s Knight Science Journalism website weighed the evidence and cautions us that other chemicals may be involved and that the connection between lead and violence is not entirely clear. As the article says, there is “no clear biological pathway by which the metallic element lead somehow turns on a violence switch in the human brain.”

A leaded gasoline sign. (Source: HowStuffWorks.com)
A leaded gasoline sign. (Source: HowStuffWorks.com)

I’ve been interested in investigating the link between crime and heavy metal pollution ever since I read a publication which said that researchers had tested biological samples from prison inmates and found that the heavy metal concentrations in their bodies were much higher than that of a control group. This article describes that study and other research on the connection between lead and crime.

Race and income may play a role in kids’ lead exposure. For example, lead pollution tends to be concentrated in lower-income neighborhoods in New Orleans. The maps in the Mother Jones article show income and lead concentrations in these communities.

Based on this evidence, one can reasonably say: if a young person grows up in a lead-polluted community, experiences hardship due to poverty and/or violence, and is more likely to be arrested and judged guilty based on his race and/or income, his likelihood of entering the prison system could become very high.

It is possible that other chemicals in addition to lead may be affecting youth too. We should address these problems when we talk about environmental issues, equal opportunity, and public policy.


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The Boston Foundation launched a new resource for community organizations and media on November 27 – the Boston Indicators Project website. The site now contains data visualization tools, thanks to a collaboration with the Institute for Visualization and Perception Research at UMass Lowell.

“Data and reports alone do not produce change,” said Charlotte Kahn, Senior Director of the Boston Indicators Project. To create change, data must lead to action. And community organizations can use data to illuminate the challenges they face.

One way the Boston Indicators Project website helps nonprofits build momentum for social action is by giving communicators the visual tools to tell strong stories to reporters.

“Data is the new sexy,” said John Davidow, Executive Editor at WBUR. Davidow participated in a panel of journalists who described the ways they wanted to use community data to tell stories about poverty, unemployment and crime.

If data-based stories look sexy to journalists, nonprofits in the Boston area can easily leverage this website to earn media attention for their work – much of which happens under the radar of the press.

The website covers 10 sectors: Civic Vitality, Cultural Life & the Arts, Economy, Education, Environment & Energy, Health, Housing, Public Safety, Technology and Transportation. Nonprofits working in any of these areas can download data from the site and use them for media outreach.

For example, the map of pollution hazards below might be useful to advocacy organizations. The color red indicates the highest concentration of sites while white shows the lowest concentration.

Environmental justice map
A map of environmental hazards in the Boston area. (Data source: Metropolitan Area Planning Commission)

There are many ways to present the data you want – once you have found them. Rahul Bhargava, a research specialist from the MIT Center for Civic Media, spoke about visualization techniques during one of the PechaKucha talks at the launch. He described using evocative images, annotated graphs, physical models, and community-created art. He also mentioned software such as Wordle, Taxego, Prezi and Omnigraphsketcher.

Communication with media can and should go beyond press releases. Community-created art projects and physical models of data may attract reporters’ attention and build support for nonprofits’ work. Even a flash mob could illuminate statistics from the Boston Indicators Project.

The UMass Lowell team which developed the visualizations for the Boston Indicators Project is also collaborating with organizations in other cities. For more information about mapping projects outside Boston, visit oicweave.org.

Note: Although you can download all of the data sets from the Boston Indicators Project website into Excel currently, not all of the visualization pages are working yet.


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Every time I drive down Route 107 toward Boston, I pass a site where General Electric manufactures aircraft engines.

Street outside GE aircraft plant in Lynn
A Google street view of Route 107 in Lynn


This factory has been open since before World War II. A local business directory estimates that it employs 5,500 people. A Boston Globe story reports a lower number and comments that the company sought state aid recently to prevent layoffs.

What’s wrong with this industrial picture?

Local residents who haven’t taken environmental journalism classes may not know that the Environmental Protection Agency lists this as a high-priority hazardous waste site. The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection database says there are 46 different contaminated locations at this address. Oil is the main culprit, but there are other hazardous materials too.

As an environmental communicator, I’m concerned that Lynn residents may not be aware of the websites above. Those jobs may benefit the community if the company hires locally, but their cost has been significant. Without transparency, problems like this may remain invisible.

Several years ago, someone asked me to tell a group how I became interested in environmental issues. I said I grew up in Chicago, where I could smell steel mill pollution and see signs of water contamination.

When people talk about “environmental justice” in the United States, they’re referring to our collective tendency to put pollution in places where people of color will encounter it.

There are many possible reasons for the close relationship between pollution and communities of color – including economic realities, community history, and the location of jobs. Where working class jobs are available, pollution is often nearby.

The National Museum of Mexican Art, which I visited in May, has some powerful pieces related to environmental justice.

The final room in the museum begins with an installation about César Chávez, who organized a boycott to oppose toxic pesticides on grapes in the 1980s.

In the gift shop, I saw a reproduction of “Sun Mad.” This controversial painting shows Ester Hernandez‘s anger about the chemicals workers face in the grape industry.

A painting showing a skeleton and pesticide warnings on a Sun Maid raisins box
Sun Mad (photo from the Smithsonian American Art Museum)

In the painting “Blue Collar,” Oscar Moya depicts a worker in a safety mask and gloves surrounded by an ominous red glow. It isn’t clear that the piece is related to chemical safety, but the atmosphere suggests it.

Salvador Vega’s “Mother Earth” reminded me of Salvador Dali’s depiction of the Spanish civil war – but the subject is our planet.

A reviewer from The Onion describes this exhibit as depressing. It did not have that effect on me. When I see art like this, it motivates me to think about social change. People shouldn’t be afraid to go to work because of concerns about chemical safety.