North Wind And Sun

NY Times Magazine Features Professor Reyes

In 2001 John Donohue and Steven Levitt published “The Impact of Legalized Abortion on Crime,” a controversial paper that detailed the correlation between the legalization of abortion and the decrease in crime levels. Now, Assistant Professor of Economics Jessica Reyes has published a paper in which she reveals a similar correlation: the connection between the removal of lead in gasoline during the 1970s and the decline in violent crime during the 1990s.

Reyes proposes that the Clean Air Act had unintended consequences for public health. “Exposure to lead has a lot of adverse consequences on health, and a lot of particular consequences on development,” Reyes said in an interview. “Gasoline was the primary source of lead exposure for the general population before lead was removed from it.”

Thus, when lead was removed from gasoline in the ’70s, the United States experienced a radical drop in its exposure to lead. Twenty years later, the country experienced an unexpected drop in the levels of violent crime-just when everyone thought that it would rise.

Reyes’ hypothesis has been met with much skepticism from other economists, journalists and academics. “Other economists regard it pretty well,” she said. “But economists are usually pretty skeptical. Steven Levitz’s response was pretty positive. More generally, though, people find it to be very surprising.”

Reyes’ project is only a piece of a larger effort that includes a cross-topical examintion on the effects of environmental toxins on social behavior. Her recently published research has broader relevance. “My research focuses on the unintended consequences of pollution and environmental policy,” she said.

These unintended consequences may prove especially significant for China, a country that has eschewed improving environmental quality in favor of economic growth. “It’s very easy to forge ahead and think that growth is the goal,” Reyes explained. “It is easy to think that the environmental issues are down the road and that environmental quality is something that cannot be afforded earlier on in growth.” Reyes elaborated, “I see my research as fitting [into this discussion] by showing the significance of environmental policy and assesseing that significance.”

(Originally published 31 January 2008 in The Amherst Student)

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