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.

 
 
 
 

As EU funding is lost, “levelling up” needs investment, not just rhetoric

Oh, well. Image: Getty.

Regional inequality was the foundation of Boris Johnson’s election victory and has since become one of the main focuses of his government. However, the enthusiasm of ministers championing the “levelling up” agenda rings hollow when compared with their inertia in preparing a UK replacement for European structural funding. 

Local government, already bearing the brunt of severe funding cuts, relies on European funding to support projects that boost growth in struggling local economies and help people build skills and find secure work. Now that the UK has withdrawn its EU membership, councils’ concerns over how EU funds will be replaced from 2021 are becoming more pronounced.

Johnson’s government has committed to create a domestic structural funding programme, the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF), to replace the European Structural and Investment Fund (ESIF). However, other than pledging that UKSPF will “reduce inequalities between communities”, it has offered few details on how funds will be allocated. A public consultation on UKSPF promised by May’s government in 2018 has yet to materialise.

The government’s continued silence on UKSPF is generating a growing sense of unease among councils, especially after the failure of successive governments to prioritise investment in regional development. Indeed, inequalities within the UK have been allowed to grow so much that the UK’s poorest region by EU standards (West Wales & the Valleys) has a GDP of 68 per cent of the average EU GDP, while the UK’s richest region (Inner London) has a GDP of 614 per cent of the EU average – an intra-national disparity that is unique in Europe. If the UK had remained a member of the EU, its number of ‘less developed’ regions in need of most structural funding support would have increased from two to five in 2021-27: South Yorkshire, Tees Valley & Durham and Lincolnshire joining Cornwall & Isles of Scilly and West Wales & the Valley. Ministers have not given guarantees that any region, whether ‘less developed’ or otherwise, will obtain the same amount of funding under UKSPF to which they would have been entitled under ESIF.


The government is reportedly contemplating changing the Treasury’s fiscal rules so public spending favours programmes that reduce regional inequalities as well as provide value for money, but this alone will not rebalance the economy. A shared prosperity fund like UKSPF has the potential to be the master key that unlocks inclusive growth throughout the country, particularly if it involves less bureaucracy than ESIF and aligns funding more effectively with the priorities of local people. 

In NLGN’s Community Commissioning report, we recommended that this funding should be devolved to communities directly to decide local priorities for the investment. By enabling community ownership of design and administration, the UK government would create an innovative domestic structural funding scheme that promotes inclusion in its process as well as its outcomes.

NLGN’s latest report, Cultivating Local Inclusive Growth: In Practice, highlights the range of policy levers and resources that councils can use to promote inclusive growth in their area. It demonstrates that, through collaboration with communities and cross-sector partners, councils are already doing sterling work to enhance economic and social inclusion. Their efforts could be further enhanced with a fund that learns lessons from ESIF’s successes and flaws: a UKSPF that is easier to access, designed and delivered by local communities, properly funded, and specifically targeted at promoting social and economic inclusion in regions that need it most. “Getting Brexit done” was meant to free up the government’s time to focus once more on pressing domestic priorities. “Getting inclusive growth done” should be at the top of any new to-do list.

Charlotte Morgan is senior researcher at the New Local Government Network.