Get the Lead Out of Our Children’s Brains

We probably have found the true villain for a large part of our worst social ills: lead. Research in criminology, brain development, and environmental science finally fit together like a jigsaw puzzle to give us the whole picture, which we didn’t have before now. It’s not that we didn’t know about lead, we just didn’t know how bad it was, or exactly what it did. Now we know, and the news is much worse than we thought. (See “Criminal Element”, by Kevin Drum in the January-February 2013 issue of Mother Jones Magazine.)

Fortunately, we already know the cure, if only we would apply it.

As Drum explains, environmental lead causes far more and far more serious problems than we ever thought possible. The worst of these is the poisoning of young children, in whom even very small amounts of lead has disastrous effects, leading directly to intellectual failure, criminal activity, and other serious social ills that become apparent exactly two decades later as they become adults.

Environmental lead causes far more and
much worse problems than we ever thought.

The major sources of environmental lead in the past century are leaded gasoline and lead-based paint. No lead is allowed in gasoline since 1997, but it was spewed everywhere for more than half a century, and it remains exactly where it settled. Newer houses were not painted with leaded paint, but all older ones were, and the lead there has not gone away either. These must be remedied.

It is easy to show a direct correlation between the presence of lead and terrible effects on children. As always, it is less easy to prove causation, but there have been so many studies of different types, in so many countries and so many settings, that the onus is on the disbeliever, because the evidence for causation is very strong. See Drum’s article.

Without doubt, even low levels of lead in the bodies of children, far less than the previously allowed levels, can have terrible effects. The most striking effect is on IQ, which falls in inverse proportion to the level of lead in the blood of children. In children under six, 80 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood, which is higher than the 65 points once approved by the EPA, create a 25 point drop in IQ. That’s the difference between normal and developmentally disabled. (The EPA now says that no amount of lead is safe.) The average level of about 15 points in 1976 caused a 10-point drop in IQ.

Even low levels of lead in the bodies of children
can have terrible effects.

But it’s not just IQ that is affected. Children, particularly boys, who have grown up with ingested lead tend to have behavioral problems, and to get in trouble with the law. This is because their brains are developmentally damaged by even slight traces of lead. Plots of crime levels in several distinct populations directly echo the rise and fall of environmental lead in those locations after a delay of two decades. That is, a high percentage of “lead babies” become criminals or sociopaths in adulthood, and all others so afflicted become handicapped in some way. A number of other social ills show a similar trend, with the same time delay.

These findings are strongly supported by neurological research, which has shown that crucial parts of the developing brain and the interconnections between them become permanently injured by even very low levels of lead in the blood of young children.

Crime levels directly echo
the rise and fall of environmental lead
two decades later.

Then suddenly we realize: environmental lead may be responsible for a large part of the crime that occurs with lower income groups, because it is these people who live in the older houses that were painted with lead paint. Getting rid of that lead cannot help but lower the crime rate in those places. The children thus protected will be far less likely to become criminals or sociopaths upon adulthood.

The population of African-American men in prison is 841,000. If large numbers of these men ingested lead as small children, which is likely, is it any wonder that the prison population is so lopsided, with black men six times more likely to be incarcerated?

Our lesson is that we now know how to foster future generations of children who are smarter, with far less antisocial behavior, and who become law abiding citizens, and the way to do it is simplicity itself: get the lead out.

Not so easy, but certainly doable. Let’s say we could save 50% of this number of black prisoners as young children with lead abatement programs. It costs $47,000 per year to house a prisoner, so avoiding this cost for 420,500 such guests of the state, half of black inmates, would save the country $19.8 billion dollars every year in prison costs alone. If the annual cost of lead abatement is a billion dollars, we will receive a return on our investment of nearly 2,000% even before other factors. Try beating that on the stock market!

We now know how to foster future generations
of children 
who are smarter,
with far less antisocial behavior,

and who become law abiding citizens.

Here are some things that come to mind. A few wise laws and appropriations would certainly pay enormous dividends. For example, a law prohibiting a pregnant woman from living in a house built before a certain year until it is shown to be lead-safe. Forbidding the sale or rental of such houses until certified. An extensive government program to pay for these inspections and for safe removal of leaded paint, because the young who have babies also have lower income, and low income families in general live in such dangerous houses. Encouragement of businesses, particularly in affected neighborhoods, certified to remove lead paint, and new tools designed specifically for that purpose. Independent inspectors. Cooperative guidance with medical pregnancy and baby programs. Modernize plumbing that was made with lead. Other programs to help remove lead from the environment, from soil in particular. But the houses come first.

These are very serious findings, and they deserve our full attention. The social and dollar cost of environmental lead in our children is enormous. It is well worth an all-out national attack on the problem, not only on humanitarian grounds, but also because removing lead will be greatly cost effective. It is undeniable that removing environmental lead will radically improve the life of every child who would otherwise be damaged forever, many becoming the next generation of inmates, instead allowing them to become productive, law abiding citizens. And every child so saved improves our lives as well.

The choice is ours. Would we rather spend $47,000 per year housing a brain-damaged criminal, or some small fraction of that sum to ensure that a child does not become brain damaged by lead that will turn him into a criminal and social misfit two decades later?

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