In El Paso, the crime headlines can be a bit absurd. The criminals in El Paso are so low key that you get breaking news headlines like the one KLAQ tweeted out this week, “El Paso Police searching for taco thief.”
Hide your kids, folks, there’s a taco thief on the loose! Reading the story didn’t make it any less silly. The picture showed a bearded hipster with an afro, and the story explained he actually paid for his 12-pack of beer, but failed to pay for his tacos. But that’s what constitutes a manhunt in El Paso.
The police are so bored, they actually sent out a news release — complete with security camera photos — on this afro-wearing menace to peace and safety.
The El Paso Times’ story on the incident included this line, “The unsolved case is Crime Stoppers of El Paso’s Crime of the Week.” Donald Trump has people convinced the border is a dangerous wasteland, with danger lurking around every corner; meanwhile, El Paso’s crime of the week is a dude who stole a few tacos. Well, he attempted to steal a few tacos. He ended up throwing them at the Circle K clerk who confronted him.
The crime stats in El Paso are so absurdly low that year after year the FBI names El Paso the “safest large city in America.” Murders in El Paso, a city of more than 750,000 people, are often in the single digits at the end of the year. It’s truly astounding.
Armchair sociologists like myself have come up with various explanations for this low crime rate. The one I usually go with, if only to spite the nativists and Trumpistas who lie about the danger of immigrants, is that El Paso’s low crime rate is a benefit of being on the border. Immigrants come over to work and support their families, not cause mayham, so it makes El Paso safe.
The low crime rates of every city on the southern border, from San Diego, California, to McAllen, Texas, seem to back this theory up.
But there is another theory, which I have always just assumed was a local joke, that may have more truth to it than I ever realized. We may have a lower crime rate because of the high level of lithium in the water in El Paso. Seriously.
A recent Radiolab podcast described the huge effects the element lithium can have on the mind of a person suffering from bipolar disorder. As an aside during the podcast, they mentioned that cities with even a slightly raised level of lithium in the water report lower crime rates. Could it be true? Could the joke I had always heard about lithium in our water be the true reason for our low crime rate?
(Side note: The hipsters out there already know about the Radiolab podcast and listen to every episode. But if you haven’t heard of this entertaining science-based podcast, I’ll include a link to the lithium episode at the end of this column. Every episode is fascinating.)
First up, I wanted to find out if there was any truth to the idea that El Paso’s lithium level was higher than most. In the book “Lithium Effects on Granulopoiesis and Immune Function,” published in 2012, it notes the high lithium level in El Paso water:
This survey identified two cities in Texas with a consistent lithium content of their water supply considerably higher than any of the rest: El Paso and Amarillo. Of the other 100 cities surveyed, only Los Angeles, California, had a consistently elevated value in the range identified for these Texas cities. A more extensive and current analysis of the lithium content of drinking waters carried out by the more sensitive atomic absorption spectrophotometry demonstrated that the high levels of lithium in El Paso and Amarillo were unchanged over the past decade.
So, yes, we have a higher level of lithium in our water. But is it in an amount that really affects our behavior? The Radiolab podcast had an expert saying it really doesn’t take much lithium to have an effect on crime rates. So, yes, I guess it could.
Turns out, the theory was floated as far back as 1971, in Time Magazine, no less. An Oct. 4, 1971, Time Magazine article titled, “The Texas Tranquilizer,” started this way:
By legend Texans are a grandiose breed with more than the natural share of megalomaniacs. But University of Texas Biochemist Earl B. Dawson thinks that he detects an uncommon pocket of psychological adjustment around El Paso. The reason, says Dawson, lies in the deep wells from which the city draws its water supply.
According to Dawson’s studies of urine samples from 3,000 Texans, El Paso’s water is heavily laced with lithium, a tranquilizing chemical widely used in the treatment of manic depression and other psychiatric disorders. He notes that Dallas, which has low lithium levels because it draws its water from surface supplies, has “about seven times more admissions to state mental hospitals than El Paso.”But state mental health officials point out that the mental hospital closest to Dallas is 35 miles from the city, while the one nearest El Paso is 350 miles away — and the long distance could affect admission figures.
But FBI statistics show that while Dallas had 5,970 known crimes per 100,000 population last year, El Paso had 2,889 per 100,000. Dallas (pop. 844,000) had 242 murders, El Paso (pop. 323,000) only 13.
As we know, the low crime rate remains in 2015. El Paso still has an abnormally low crime rate, just like in 1971. Heck, despite being much larger now, El Paso still usually doesn’t reach 13 murders a year.
So, pass the tap water. No wonder I’m so happy in El Paso. And here I thought it was the chemtrails.
Radiolab podcast about elements, including lithium: http://www.radiolab.org/story/elements/
Time Magazine’s “The Texas Tranquilizer” article (subscription required): http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,905404,00.html#paid-wall