Air Pollution Tied to Higher Rates of Violent Crime

A new series of studies from Colorado State University (CSU) reveal a strong association between short-term exposure to air pollution and aggressive behavior, in the form of aggravated assaults and other violent crimes across the continental United States.

The findings, published in the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, were derived from daily Federal Bureau of Investigation crime statistics and an eight-year, detailed map of daily U.S. air pollution.

The paper’s lead author is Dr. Jesse Burkhardt, assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, who teamed up with fellow economist Dr. Jude Bayham in the same department; Dr. Ander Wilson in the Department of Statistics; and several air pollution experts in civil engineering and atmospheric science.

Air pollution scientists typically measure rates of pollution through concentrations of ozone, as well as of “PM2.5,” or breathable particulate matter 2.5 microns in diameter or smaller, which research has linked to health effects.

Eighty-three percent of crimes considered “violent” by the FBI are categorized as assaults in crime databases. The findings show that a 10 microgram-per-cubic-meter increase in same-day exposure to PM2.5 is linked to a 1.4% increase in violent crimes, nearly all of which is driven by crimes categorized as assaults.

Researchers also found that a 0.01 parts-per-million increase in same-day exposure to ozone is associated with a 0.97% increase in violent crime, or a 1.15% increase in assaults. Changes in these air pollution measures had no statistically significant effect on any other category of crime.

The team also discovered that 56 percent of violent crimes and 60 percent of assaults occurred within the home, which is an indication that many such crimes are tied to domestic violence.

“We’re talking about crimes that might not even be physical — you can assault someone verbally,” co-author Bayham said. “The story is, when you’re exposed to more pollution, you become marginally more aggressive, so those altercations – some things that may not have escalated – do escalate.”

The researchers were careful to correct for other possible explanations, including weather, heat waves, precipitation, or more general, county-specific confounding factors.

They also made no claims on how exposure to pollution can lead someone to become more aggressive; their results only show a strong link between such crimes and levels of air pollution.

The team published a companion paper in the Journal of Environmental Economics and Policy with similar results that used monthly crime statistics. A third paper in Epidemiology, with lead author Jesse Berman from the University of Minnesota and co-authors from CSU, used EPA pollution monitor databases and different statistical techniques and came to similar conclusions.

“The results are fascinating, and also scary,” said co-author Jeff Pierce, associate professor in the Department of Atmospheric Science and a Monfort Professor. “When you have more air pollution, this specific type of crime, domestic violent crime in particular, increases quite significantly.”

The economists calculated that a 10 percent reduction in daily PM2.5 could save $1.1 million in crime costs per year, which they called a “previously overlooked cost associated with pollution.”

Source: Colorado State University

Exposure to Violence Tied to Loneliness, Hypervigilance, Health Issues

Exposure to community and police violence can negatively impact a person’s physical and psychosocial health, according to new research published in the journal Health Affairs.

The research involved two studies based on in-person surveys of more than 500 adults living in Chicago neighborhoods with high rates of violent crime, and mostly comprising racial and ethnic minority groups. Of the study participants, 77% were age 50 and up.

Elizabeth L. Tung, M.D., a social epidemiologist from the University of Chicago Medicine and coauthor of both studies, was inspired to conduct this research after she noticed that more of her patients from violent neighborhoods were struggling to follow their prescribed health regimens.

“They would be hesitant to join walking groups because they were afraid to walk in their neighborhoods. Or I’d ask, ‘Why didn’t you get your medications on time?’ And they’d say, ‘Well, I could only get a ride at night, and I don’t want to leave the house at night.’ That kind of thing was coming up a lot more,” Tung said.

In the first report, researchers found that social isolation and loneliness were linked to limited physical activity, not taking medication properly, poor nutrition, binge drinking and smoking.

The results reveal that the more violence people experienced in their own community, the lonelier they were likely to be. The greatest risk for loneliness was found among those who were exposed to community violence and screened positive for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The findings are particularly troublesome for older adults who live in violent neighborhoods, who are more prone to loneliness and might already have chronic health issues like diabetes, obesity or heart disease. Loneliness is a growing health concern, and a key predictor of mortality in the U.S.

“The association between violence exposure and loneliness is a really interesting one, because there’s such a strong link,” said Tung. “The pervasiveness of violence seems to be more evident now than ever. What does that sense of violence in our culture do more broadly to loneliness?”

Social withdrawal might be a survival strategy in violent neighborhoods, but it’s not a good long-term option, said study coauthor Monica E. Peek, M.D., an associate professor at the University of Chicago and the associate director of the Chicago Center of Diabetes Translation Research.

“Someone who is socially isolated and lonely has a higher risk for cardiovascular disease, just like someone who has a history of smoking. Loneliness is a public health issue with real health implications,” Peek said.

“Violence impacts more than just the victims, but the whole community. Everyone’s health is potentially affected.”

The new findings tie into a bigger conversation happening nationwide about how issues like loneliness, food insecurity and housing impact a person’s physical and psychological health, Peek added.

“Our health care system is changing and evolving, and we’re starting to think not just about medical care but the social needs of our patients, and trying to use the medical system as a way to integrate those needs. Having a more holistic approach will better help our health outcomes,” she said.

The second report, led by Nichole A. Smith, a medical student at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine, quantified a connection between exposure to community and police violence and hypervigilance.

Hypervigilance — defined as a heightened emotional state of always feeling “on guard” — can prevent people from making healthy lifestyle choices. Chronic hypervigilance can lead to hypertension, cardiovascular disease, memory impairment, anxiety disorders and difficulty regulating emotions.

“It’s a very well-studied phenomenon, mostly in veterans. But it’s so poorly studied in community-based settings where you have this chronic exposure to violence,” Tung said.

The study found a surprisingly strong link between hypervigilance and exposure to police violence more than community violence.

Exposure to community violence was linked to a 5.5% increase in the hypervigilance score, while exposure to police violence was associated with a 9.8% increase. Respondents who experienced a traumatic event during a police stop had a 20% increase in hypervigilance scores.

The findings suggest a complex association between police violence and the mental and physical health of community members. It raises the question of whether hypervigilance, both among residents and police officers, could possibly lead to harmful escalations during police stops.

The study suggests that more trauma-informed policing and opportunities for community-building activities between police and community members, such as the CAPS police baseball league with community members, could help reduce hypervigilance on both sides and prevent situations from escalating into harmful ones.

Source: University of Chicago Medical Center

When Abuse Involves Controlling a Partner’s Education

A new study offers a closer look at a lesser-known form of psychological abuse: educational sabotage. This type of abuse involves behaviors aimed at hindering or stopping another person’s educational efforts.

“This form of violence is used by one of the partners as a means for furthering their own power and control over the other partner,” said Dr. Rachel Voth Schrag, a domestic violence expert and assistant professor in the School of Social Work at The University of Texas at Arlington. “Pursuing higher education can be perceived as a threat by the abusing party.”

Educational sabotage is a form of coercive control that directly affects a survivor’s efforts to obtain educational credentials, said Voth Schrag. Tactics may include disruption of financial aid or academic efforts, physical violence and/or inducing guilt related to academic efforts.

These strategies are a serious hindrance to the successful completion of educational programs and, ultimately, the economic independence and safety of survivors, she said.

For the study, the researchers conducted 20 interviews with community college students who reported current or recent intimate partner violence  (IPV). The participants identified several ways in which educational sabotage had impacted their lives. Impacts included reduced academic achievement, emotional or mental health challenges, but on a more positive note, an increased desire to overcome such obstacles.

Educational sabotage is considered a form of IPV, which is a factor in 16.5% of all homicides in the U.S., according to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The agency estimates one in four women and nearly one in 10 men have experienced intimate partner violence during their lifetime.

Pursuing higher education can be a catalyst for breaking out of the isolation and cycles of dependency that often accompany IPV. According to Voth Schrag’s study, “by understanding, addressing, and preventing school sabotage, scholars, institutions of higher education, and their community partners have an opportunity to make an important contribution to the well-being and safety of students.”

The study is published in the journal Violence Against Women.

Source: University of Texas at Arlington


Family & Friends Support Criminals, Especially in More Serious Offenses

A new study has found that people will protect those close to them who commit crimes, particularly highly severe infractions such as theft, blackmail, and groping.

Regardless of gender, political orientation, morals, or disgust at the offense, the tendency is to not sacrifice the relationship, even for the good of society, according to researchers from the University of Michigan.

Researchers added they were surprised that people tend to become more protective of a loved one as the severity of the crime increases.

“We were really taken aback to see that most people predict that they will protect those close to them even in the face of heinous moral infractions,” said Dr. Aaron Weidman, a psychology research fellow and the study’s co-lead author.

For the study, the researchers analyzed responses from more than 2,800 people across 10 studies. They tested whether people were more likely to protect those close to them versus strangers after imagining them committing immoral acts of theft and sexual harassment.

For example, participants were asked to imagine that a police officer asked them if they knew anything about an immoral act they had witnessed. They were more willing to lie to protect someone close to them, such as a family member or close friend.

On the other hand, if the perpetrator was a stranger, participants wanted the individual to be formally punished, possibly turning them in to law enforcement or subjecting them to social ostracizing.

To understand these results, the research team said they examined potential psychological explanations for this behavior. They found that many people justify their decision to protect those they love by reporting that they’d discipline the perpetrator on their own. By doing this, people maintain their self-image as a morally upstanding individual, as well as preserving the close relationship, according to the  researchers.

“Loyalty is a powerful motivator that, under certain circumstances, can override other virtues like honesty,” said Walter Sowden, the study’s other lead author and a former U-M psychology doctoral student. Sowden is now an Army research psychologist.

The researchers also demonstrated how this bias to protect friends and loved ones could be mitigated by instructing people to adopt a psychologically distanced perspective.

In two experiments, they found that asking participants to reason about the most severe forms of moral transgression from a third-person perspective nudged them toward making the more ethical decision, according to the study’s findings.

The study was published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Source: University of Michigan

Treatment for Domestic Violence and Sex Offenders Can Reduce Future Crimes

A new study finds that specialized psychological programs designed to rehabilitate sexual and domestic violence offenders have led to significant reductions in reoffending, but the best results are achieved with consistent input from a qualified psychologist.

For the study, a research team led by the University of Kent in the U.K. reviewed 70 previous studies and the cases of 55,000 individual offenders from five countries (UK, Canada, USA, Australia, New Zealand) to determine whether specialized psychological offense treatments were linked to reductions in recidivism (the tendency for a convicted criminal to reoffend).

The research team evaluated three specialized treatments: sexual, domestic violence and general violence programs, with the first two comprising the majority of specialized psychological programs offered in correctional and community settings.

The findings show that, across all programs, offense-specific reoffending was 13.4 percent for treated individuals and 19.4 percent for untreated comparisons over an average follow up of 66 months.

Relative reductions in offense-specific reoffending were 32.6 percent for sexual offense programs; 36 percent for domestic violence programs; and 24.3 percent for general violence programs. All programs were also associated with significant reductions in non-offense specific reoffending.

However, overall, treatment effectiveness appeared to improve when programs received consistent hands-on input from a qualified registered psychologist and the facilitating staff members were given clinical supervision.

For sex offenders, specific group-based treatment, rather than mixed group and individual treatment, led to the greatest reductions in sexual reoffending as did treatment that focused specifically on reducing inappropriate sexual arousal. All sexual offense treatment in these studies was cognitive behavioral therapy.

“The results of this study are good news. They suggest that treatment can be effective; particularly if care and attention is paid to who delivers the treatment as well as how treatment is implemented,” said Professor Gannon, a chartered forensic psychologist and director of Kent’s Centre of Research and Education in Forensic Psychology.

Amongst its recommendations, the study suggests that policy makers and offender program providers might optimize programs outcomes by providing qualified psychologists who are consistently present in hands-on treatment.

The findings also suggest that program providers might also want to consider methods for tightly controlling program implementation given that the study shows that single site treatments seem to fare better than multisite treatments.

The study, published in the journal Clinical Psychology Review, was led by Professor Theresa Gannon from the University of Kent.

Source: University of Kent

Many Patients Hide Life-Threatening Issues From Their Doctors

A new study finds that many patients who have faced domestic violence, sexual assault, depression or thoughts of suicide are likely to hide this information from their healthcare providers.

The findings, published online in JAMA Network Open, show that up to 47.5 percent of patients who have experienced one or more of these four threats do not disclose this critical information to care providers out of embarrassment, fear of judgment or the possible long-term implications of sharing such information.

Understanding how to make patients feel more comfortable with clinicians is key to helping patients address such life-threatening risks, says the study’s senior author Angela Fagerlin, PhD, chair of the department of Population Health Sciences at the University of Utah Health.

“For primary care providers to help patients achieve their best health, they need to know what the patient is struggling with,” says Fagerlin. For example, patients who withhold they have been sexually assaulted are potentially at risk for post-traumatic stress disorder and sexually-transmitted diseases, she explains.

“There are numerous ways providers can help patients, such as getting resources, therapy and treatment.”

The study involved more than 4,500 people in two national online surveys from 2015. Participants in one survey averaged 36 years old, while participants from the second had a median age of 61.

The respondents reviewed a list of medically relevant information and were asked to indicate whether they had ever withheld this information from a clinician. They were also asked the reasons why they withheld the information.

The surveys show that 40 to 47.5 percent of participants chose not to tell their provider that they had experienced at least one of the four threats. Over 70 percent said the reason why was embarrassment or fear of being judged or lectured.

If the patient was female or younger, the odds were higher they would keep this information to themselves. What compounds this issue is that several recent studies have shown how health care providers downplay or fail to take seriously women’s medical complaints.

One limitation noted by the study’s first author, Andrea Gurmankin Levy, PhD, MBe, a professor in social sciences at Middlesex Community College in Middletown, Connecticut, is that study participants may have not shared in their survey responses all the information they withheld, meaning that this phenomenon may be even more prevalent than the study reveals.

Levy says the survey reinforces that there is discomfort and a lack of trust between patients and providers. If patients filled out a questionnaire about sensitive information when they arrive at the provider’s office, might that improve the information flow? For example, is it easier to tell a piece of paper something sensitive than to look into your clinician’s eyes and say it?

This is the team’s second article based on the 2015 surveys. The first, published in November 2018, revealed that 60 to 80 percent of those surveyed did not share pertinent information with their provider regarding daily issues like diet and exercise. One third did not speak up when they disagreed with their provider’s recommendations.

Both surveys raise concerns about communication and trust between patients and their caregivers. Improving this relationship falls both on providers’ and patients’ shoulders, the authors say.

Providers need to establish an atmosphere where the patient feels neither judged nor rushed, but rather are able to share concerns fundamental to their well-being. In addition, patients will benefit by sharing sensitive information with their providers.

Researchers from University of Utah Health, Middlesex Community College, University of Michigan and University of Iowa collaborated on the study.

Source: University of Utah Health