The findings may not be surprising, but two new studies linking childhood lead exposure to later criminal activity are still extremely disturbing. It may not be news to anyone who has sat in juvenile court in Baltimore, where lawyers for youthful offenders have tried to use lead poisoning as an excuse for their clients' bad behavior. But in tracking the harmful, long-term effects of lead, the studies serve as another loud reminder - for Baltimore, Maryland and the nation - that no amount of this toxin in the body can be considered safe.
For two decades, researchers at the University of Cincinnati have been tracking hundreds of mostly black children from that city's poor areas. As those children grew from infants to young adults, they lost critical brain matter, particularly in areas associated with judgment and reasoning, attention, decision-making and impulse control. Criminal data showed that children with higher levels of lead exposure were more likely to be arrested for violent offenses as adults.
Because the researchers were able to control for other factors that might explain the brain losses, such as smoking or drug use, and the connection between lead poisoning and behavioral problems has been shown in other research, the new studies underscore the urgent need to reduce lead levels to as close to zero as possible. The effort needs to start with the federal government, but the Bush administration recently refused to lower the allowable standard for lead, which could have made more resources available to combat lead poisoning nationwide.
In Baltimore and Maryland, where childhood lead exposure has been reduced significantly in the past decade, there is still work to be done. Better screening is needed for children in inner-city neighborhoods as well as suburban children living in older homes, and more intervention and prevention programs should be available for children with lead-related problems of attention deficit and out-of-control behavior. The Cincinnati findings make clear that the battle against lead continues.