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Truth Behind the Headlines: An exposure to air pollution is linked to an increase in violent crime
(31/08/20)

The media reported on research carried out by the universities of Colorado and Minnesota that used crime data and air-pollution data. The researchers analysed the link between air pollution and violent crimes in nearly 400 US counties between 2006 and 2013 and concluded that ‘breathing dirty air’ is linked to aggressive behaviour.

 

More specifically, the research found a robust relationship between exposure to short-term air pollution (both indoor and outdoor) on several categories of violent crime and specifically assaults. No relationship was identified between increases in air pollution and property crimes. The researchers suggested that a 10% decrease in the relevant air pollutants could reduce the costs associated with crime by over 1 billion US dollars per year.

Using our recommended five tips, Global Action Plan reviewed the study:

 

Questions to ask to get to the truth Our response
1. Does the article refer to a report to back up its claims?

 The article refers to a peer-reviewed paper about the effect of pollution on crime using evidence from data (on particulate matter and ozone), which was published in the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management in November 2019.

2. Who is behind the study it refers to?

Dr Jesse Burkhardt, Assistant Professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, Colorado State University, and eight of his colleagues in different departments at Colorado State University and in the Division of Environmental Health Sciences at the University of Minnesota.

3. How fantastical and radical is the claim that is being made?

The study is methodologically robust and plausible, being supported by related existing research. For example, numerous epidemiological and toxicological studies demonstrate a strong evidence base for a wide-range of short and long-term health effects associated with exposure to airborne particulate matter (PM). Most importantly, there is evidence that air pollution exposure can have short-term effects on cognitive skills development, including the expression of behaviours associated with criminal or violent activities (Kioumourtzoglou et al., 2017; Lu et al., 2018).

4. What geographical region does the claim refer to?

The data analyzed were specific to the United States of America. Further research would be needed to establish whether the relationship identified applies more widely.

5. What is the sample size of the study?

The study used detailed daily crime data from multiple sources: data on criminal activity from the National Incident Based Reporting System (NIBRS) managed by the FBI and incident-level crime reports for over fifty categories of crime from 397 counties in the USA (equating to ~28% of the US population). Additionally, daily surface-level air pollution data (PM2.5 and ozone concentrations) from the EPA were interpolated to produce a 15 km grid across the USA. Finally, wild-fire and meteorological information spanning continental USA was used to account for the impact of smoke plumes and weather extremes.

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