Environmental Health and Antisocial Behavior: Implications for Public Policy

Article excerpt

Abstract Antisocial behavior persists as a preeminent public policy issue in the United States. A more critical assessment of both the policies and the programs designed to address this problem is necessary, and new risk factors for antisocial behavior need to be investigated. Sufficient evidence exists to hypothesize that exposure to neurotoxins may be a risk factor for antisocial behavior. Neurotoxins such as lead have been demonstrated to affect the cognitive development of children, and impaired cognition is accepted as a risk factor for antisocial behavior. Little consideration has been given, however, to the possible link between neurotoxins and human behavior. This paper presents a biologically and socially plausible justification for this association, reviews the supporting evidence, and emphasizes the need for additional investigation of the phenomenon. Elucidation of this risk factor may lead to new strategies for preventing or mitigating antisocial behaviors among youth and adults.


Public policy, the media, and individuals in the United States continue to devote much attention and many resources to issues of crime and safety, particularly matters of juvenile crime and delinquency. Despite decades of concern and study, however, antisocial behavior persists as a major social and political issue. This persistence suggests that a more critical assessment of both the policies and the programs designed to address this problem is necessary. Historically, interventions targeting antisocial behavior have been based in the criminal justice system, neglecting the potential benefits of educational, economic, and health-based approaches. New risk factors for delinquency should be explored, and new methods of intervention should be considered. Existing evidence, though limited, suggests that exposure to environmental contaminants, particularly in utero and during early childhood, may be one such risk factor.

The environmental hazards associated with urban living are increasingly becoming a concern of public-health practitioners. Rapid growth and development in urban centers, the proliferation of automobiles, and the expanded use of chemical agents for multiple purposes have prompted concerns over the effects of environmental contaminants on human health. Both indoor and outdoor air quality have been associated with respiratory morbidity, particularly among those with asthma (Cone, 1998; Duhme, Keil, & Weiland, 1998; Hoppe & Martinac, 1998; Malveaux & Fletcher-Vincent, 1995; Oliver & Shackelton, 1998; Philip-Joet, 1990; Schlesinger, 1992). Meanwhile, dense and aging housing continues to pose an environmental health threat because of lead in paint and plumbing materials, the accumulation of dust and particulates, and animal infestations (Brown, 1994; Landrigan, 1990; Lanphear et al., 1998; Lemus, Abdelghani, Akers, & Horner, 1996; Potera, 1997; Rothenberg et al., 1996; Sobral, 1989; Struening, Moore, & Wallace, 1990). Moreover, the water supply in urban, suburban, and rural communities is routinely threatened by contaminants associated with development and industrialization (Beavers et al., 1996; Gebel, 1999; Levy, Bens, Calderon, Craun, & Herwaldt, 1998; Piver, Duval, & Schreifer, 1998).

Although the subject of behavioral toxicology has received little attention from public health practitioners, epidemiologic studies have documented adverse effects on cognition from exposure to a variety of neurotoxins, particularly lead. Such cognitive effects may contribute to antisocial behavior indirectly by interacting with social factors. In addition, a small number of studies have demonstrated associations between exposure to neurotoxins and characteristics of personality and behavior, suggesting a direct link between the two. The relationship between environmental exposures and antisocial behavior is an interesting area for future research that could bring many benefits to public health, education, and criminal justice (Brady, 1993). …