Joker: Leaded Gas at the Oscars

Source: Wikimedia Commons.

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The 2020 Academy Awards are quickly approaching. This year’s most-nominated film, Joker, is nominated for 11 Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Director, surprising no-one (but upsetting many). 

Set in 1981 in Gotham (the DC universe stand-in for New York City), Joker is, at its core, about an angry man, a sick person who has been been used and abused his entire life, and his descent into madness and violence. 

Joker and its cultural predecessors, movies like Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, are set in a gritty, dirty, angry New York that is hard to reconcile with the clean and even-tempered Big Apple of today.

Justifications for Joker’s behaviour are littered throughout the movie: His mental illness,  the abuse he suffered as a child, the cruelty of the people who surround him and the failure of social institutions meant to care for and protect him. 

When I watch a movie like Joker, filled with angry, rioting mobs and ubiquitous crime, I see another, invisible actor at play. I see a city suffering from poisoned air, soil and water. I see the generational toll of leaded gasoline, and its disproportionate effect on large cities, like New York.

In 1993 Rudy Giuliani was elected Mayor of a city “under siege”. Since the 1960s, New York City rape rates had quadrupled, murder had quintupled, and robberies had increased by 14 times. Giuliani’s tough-on-crime approach was simple, zero tolerance for a certain class of New Yorker: turnstile jumpers, vagrants, panhandlers, drunks, drug pushers, and squeegee kids. He decentralized police operations and gave precincts more control. By 1996, the New York Times reported that rape rates had dropped 17%, assault 27%, robbery 42%, and murder 49%.

While this appears to be a story about the triumph of public policy, it isn’t. This trend wasn’t limited to New York, but was ubiquitous in cities across North America. Since the early ‘90s the violent crime rate in Washington, DC has dropped 58% in Dallas’ 70%, in Newark 74%, in Los Angeles 78%.

In all of these places, the same invisible actor played a starring role: lead.

For decades researchers have known that lead exposure in babies and toddlers is associated with complications later in life, including lower IQ, hyperactivity, behavioural problems, learning disabilities and juvenile delinquency. These kids grew up to be exactly the sort of people we see in Joker, violent anti-social adults, with anger management issues.

By far the biggest postwar source of lead was tetraethyllead, a gasolene additive designed to reduce knocking and increase fuel efficiency. Lead emissions increased with the emergence of Car Culture, quadrupling between the early ’40s and the late ’70s. Then, when unleaded gasoline began to replace leaded gasoline, emissions plummeted. According to  Rick Nevin, a consultant working for the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, violent crime rates have also followed the same pattern, offset by 20 years. Crime rates rose dramatically in the ’60s through the ’80s, and then began dropping steadily starting in the early ’90s. Controlling for other factors, lead emissions from automobiles explain 90% of the variation in violent crime in America.

The introduction of the catalytic converter in the late ‘70s early ‘80s, combined with increasingly stringent EPA regulations, steadily reduced the amount of leaded gasoline American children were exposed to. In 1986 leaded gas was banned altogether, not to protect kids from lead, but rather to fight air pollution and smog.

Interestingly, the Canadian government didn’t follow the American example and adopt these increased emission standards. According to Dimitry Anastakis, in his 2009 article “A ‘War on Pollution’?: Canadian Responses to the Automotive Emissions Problem, 1970–80”, Canada was slow to adopt the catalytic converter (which reduced CO emissions and was damaged by leaded gas) and believed that air pollution was an American or Californian problem. The Canadian auto industry successfully lobbied for lower standards, arguing that increased regulations would have detrimental economic impacts, and would increase the cost of living for Canadians. By the 1980s, Canadian cars polluted seven times more than American equivalents. Canada didn’t phase out leaded gas until 1990, which means its effects are still present in anybody over 30. 

It can be hard to see people of the past as they actually were. To ignore nostalgia and the idealized images in photographs, advertisements and other media and remember that people are just people, flawed and complex and motivated by all of the same drives as today.

But while people don’t change, their environments do. 

Joker is set in a biochemical environment that has gradually disappeared into the cultural imaginings of the historical drama.

And while Joker isn’t a movie about leaded gas (I suspect the leaded gas-crime hypothesis didn’t even occur to its creators) it also sort of is.

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Lauren Walker

Cultural Heritage Specialist at WSP
Lauren Walker is a Cultural Heritage Specialist with over nine years of experience working in the cultural heritage planning and conservation field. Lauren is interested in the cultural heritage landscapes of the Great Lakes region, the manufacturing of land and the role of environmental history in the environmental assessment process.

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