Could air pollution be linked to higher crime rates?

Well, now I fancy some burgling. Image: Getty.

The impact of air pollution on human health is well-documented. We know that exposure to high levels of air pollutants raises the risk of respiratory infections, heart disease, stroke, lung cancer as well as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. But there is growing evidence to suggest that air pollution does not just affect our health – it affects our behaviour too.

Lead was removed from petrol in the USA in the 1970s in response to concerns that vehicle emissions could be contributing to behavioural problems, learning difficulties and lowered IQ among children. In particular, childhood exposure to lead increases traits such as impulsiveness, aggression and low IQ – which can influence criminal behaviour. Taking lead out of petrol has since been linked with a 56 per cent drop in violent crime in the 1990s.

Short-term exposure to air pollution, especially sulphur dioxide, has been associated with a high risk of hospital admissions for mental disorders in Shanghai. And in Los Angeles, a study concluded that higher levels of particulate matter pollution increases teenage delinquent behaviour in urban neighbourhoods – though of course these effects are compounded by poor relationships between parents and children, as well as social and mental distress on the part of the parents.

It now believed that exposure to air pollutants can cause inflammation in the brain. What’s more, fine particulate matter is harmful to developing brains, because it can damage brain and neural networks and influence behaviour.

Criminal behaviour

The evidence so far suggests that air pollution has the capacity to increase bad behaviour – especially among young people. But further research indicates that it can have even more serious impacts. One study of air pollution and crime in 9,360 US cities suggests that air pollution increases crime. Polluted air increases anxiety, which can in turn lead to a rise in criminal or unethical behaviour. The study concluded that cities with higher levels of air pollution had higher levels of crime.

Recent research from the UK provides provides more information on this issue, by comparing data for 1.8m crimes over two years with pollution data from London’s boroughs and wards. The analysis considered factors such as temperature, humidity and rainfall, days of the week and different seasons.

The air quality index (AQI) reports how clean or polluted the air is each day. Researchers found that a 10 point raise in the AQI increases the crime rate by 0.9 per cent. Levels of crime in London are therefore higher on the most polluted days. The study found that air pollution influenced crime in London’s wealthiest and poorest neighbourhoods.

Specifically, the findings linked higher air pollution levels in London to increases in petty crime such as shoplifting and pick-pocketing. But it is worth noting that the researchers found no significant impact on serious crimes such as murder, rape or assault resulting in severe injury.

The stress factor

Exposure to poor quality air can increase the stress hormone cortisol, which can influence risk perception. Higher levels of risk taking is one reason why there is a rise in criminal activity on polluted days. The researchers conclude that reducing air pollution could reduce crime.

SMog: a recipe for misbehaviour. Image: Ian D. Keating/Flickr/creative commons.

But other social and environmental factors may also influence people’s behaviour. Environmental disorder – such as broken windows and graffiti – can induce social and moral disorder. The broken window theory suggests that signs of disorderly and petty criminal behaviour trigger more disorderly and petty criminal behaviour, causing this behaviour to spread.


It is becoming clear the effects of polluted air goes beyond the well-known impacts on health and environment. Yet air pollution remains high in many countries. According to the World Health Organisation, nine out of ten people worldwide are now breathing in toxic air.

There’s still a lot we don’t know about how individual air pollutants can affect health and behaviour, and how this differ with gender, age, class, income and geographic location. The link between high levels of air pollution and increases in type of behaviour requires further robust evidence to determine a stronger causal link.

But there’s plenty of evidence to prove that poor air quality is bad for both our physical and mental health. Concerted action by national and local government is required to tackle the problem by developing more sustainable transport, efficient and renewable energy production and use, and waste management.

The ConversationThe UN BreatheLife campaign is now challenging citizens to take action by leaving their car at home and use alternative forms of transport for at least the distance of a marathon (42km/26 miles) for one month. We all have a role to play in ensuring we can all breathe clean air, and gain the benefits of improved physical, mental and social well-being.

Gary Haq, SEI Associate, Stockholm Environment Institute, Environment Department, University of York.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

“Stop worrying about hairdressers”: The UK government has misdiagnosed its productivity problem

We’re going as fast as we can, here. Image: Getty.

Gonna level with you here, I have mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, I’m a huge fan of schadenfreude, so learning that it the government has messed up in a previously unsuspected way gives me this sort of warm glow inside. On the other hand, the way it’s been screwing up is probably making the country poorer, and exacerbating the north south divide. So, mixed reviews really.

Here’s the story. This week the Centre for Cities (CfC) published a major report on Britain’s productivity problem. For the last 200 years, ever since the industrial revolution, this country has got steadily richer. Since the financial crash, though, that seems to have stopped.

The standard narrative on this has it that the problem lies in the ‘long tail’ of unproductive businesses – that is, those that produce less value per hour. Get those guys humming, the thinking goes, and the productivity problem is sorted.

But the CfC’s new report says that this is exactly wrong. The wrong tail: Why Britain’s ‘long tail’ is not the cause of its productivity problems (excellent pun, there) delves into the data on productivity in different types of businesses and different cities, to demonstrate two big points.

The first is that the long tail is the wrong place to look for productivity gains. Many low productivity businesses are low productivity for a reason:

The ability of manufacturing to automate certain processes, or the development of ever more sophisticated computer software in information and communications have greatly increased the output that a worker produces in these industries. But while a fitness instructor may use a smartphone today in place of a ghetto blaster in 1990, he or she can still only instruct one class at a time. And a waiter or waitress can only serve so many tables. Of course, improvements such as the introduction of handheld electronic devices allow orders to be sent to the kitchen more efficiently, will bring benefits, but this improvements won’t radically increase the output of the waiter.

I’d add to that: there is only so fast that people want to eat. There’s a physical limit on the number of diners any restaurant can actually feed.

At any rate, the result of this is that it’s stupid to expect local service businesses to make step changes in productivity. If we actually want to improve productivity we should focus on those which are exporting services to a bigger market.  There are fewer of these, but the potential gains are much bigger. Here’s a chart:

The y-axis reflects number of businesses at different productivities, shown on the x-axis. So bigger numbers on the left are bad; bigger numbers on the right are good. 

The question of which exporting businesses are struggling to expand productivity is what leads to the report’s second insight:

Specifically it is the underperformance of exporting businesses in cities outside of the Greater South East that causes not only divergences across the country in wages and standards of living, but also hampers national productivity. These cities in particular should be of greatest concern to policy makers attempting to improve UK productivity overall.

In other words, it turned out, again, to the north-south divide that did it. I’m shocked. Are you shocked? This is my shocked face.

The best way to demonstrate this shocking insight is with some more graphs. This first one shows the distribution of productivity in local services business in four different types of place: cities in the south east (GSE) in light green, cities in the rest of the country (RoGB) in dark green, non-urban areas in the south east in purple, non-urban areas everywhere else in turquoise.

The four lines are fairly consistent. The light green, representing south eastern cities has a lower peak on the left, meaning slightly fewer low productivity businesses, but is slightly higher on the right, meaning slightly more high productivity businesses. In other words, local services businesses in the south eastern cities are more productive than those elsewhere – but the gap is pretty narrow. 

Now check out the same graph for exporting businesses:

The differences are much more pronounced. Areas outside those south eastern cities have many more lower productivity businesses (the peaks on the left) and significantly fewer high productivity ones (the lower numbers on the right).

In fact, outside the south east, cities are actually less productive than non-urban areas. This is really not what you’d expect to see, and no a good sign for the health of the economy:

The report also uses a few specific examples to illustrate this point. Compare Reading, one of Britain’s richest medium sized cities, with Hull, one of its poorest:

Or, looking to bigger cities, here’s Bristol and Sheffield:

In both cases, the poorer northern cities are clearly lacking in high-value exporting businesses. This is a problem because these don’t just provide well-paying jobs now: they’re also the ones that have the potential to make productivity gains that can lead to even better jobs. The report concludes:

This is a major cause for concern for the national economy – the underperformance of these cities goes a long way to explain both why the rest of Britain lags behind the Greater South East and why it performs poorly on a

European level. To illustrate the impact, if all cities were as productive as those in the Greater South East, the British economy would be 15 per cent more productive and £225bn larger. This is equivalent to Britain being home to four extra city economies the size of Birmingham.

In other words, the lesson here is: stop worrying about the productivity of hairdressers. Start worrying about the productivity of Hull.


You can read the Centre for Cities’ full report here.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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