Case in Point: Lead Poisoning

Lead is a very prevalent heavy metal and is very damaging to the cells. Even low levels of lead have been clearly linked to the increased incidence of cancer and heart disease. Paint manufacturers once used lead as a white pigment and drying agent, and the dust from it is a primary contaminant in people living in older homes. Lead impairs functioning of many organs, especially the kidneys, the liver, the heart, and the brain. Exposure of pregnant women and children between the ages of 1 and 6 can especially trigger devastating long-term mental health effects.

Lead interferes with functioning of the brain’s prefrontal lobe, the area that controls impulsivity, long-range thinking and communication skills. Scientists feel that even low blood lead levels (such as 5 micrograms per deciliter) can harm a child, including decreasing potential IQ. This condition can set the stage for future criminal behavior, since it stimulates impulsivity and aggression.

So lead poisoning not only causes extreme health problems, it has also been implicated as one aspect of today’s social ills, as well. Consider the following information. An online newspaper article published out of Baltimore describes a young man of 22 who was serving a 35-year term for the gruesome murder of his uncle and had recently been charged with strangling a 16-year-old fellow inmate. A previous report listing several health conditions suffered by the young convict, Kevin G. Johns Jr., included lead poisoning.

The story also highlights the work of Dr. Herbert Needleman, a pediatrician and child psychiatrist at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, who was one of the first scientists to study the connection between lead poisoning and anti-social behavior. Dr. Needleman was concerned because mothers of children with high lead levels often complained about their children’s behavioral problems, including that of being aggressive and difficult to control.

Needleman’s initial research, conducted in 1979, found ‘significant difference in the lead levels with children who had attention or behavioral problems.’ Next, he investigated the correlation between lead and anti-social behavior. In testing the bone-lead levels of 194 children in the Allegheny County, Pa., juvenile justice system in 1998, he compared the convicted youths to a control group of 146 students living in the same county with no criminal record. He called his results ‘startling’ because the convicted youths had lead levels 10 to 11 times higher than the control group. Needleman added that ‘there is no doubt that lead affects important functions of controlling impulses, and I believe this relates to crime.’ Other research supports Dr. Needleman’s discovery that lead is linked to anti-social behavior. The article goes on to report that:

“In 2001, scientists Paul Stretesky and Michael Lynch used federal data that measured lead levels in the air in 3,111 counties across the United States. Comparing the data to the homicide rates for the same counties, the scientists found that the counties with the highest rate of lead-air pollution had four times as many homicides than the counties with the lowest.

Lead Exposure and Violent Crime

“Rick Nevin, an economic consultant, was hired by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to find out the cost of removing lead paint from public housing. Concurrently, he studied the link between lead exposure and violent crime and his research revealed that lead-exposure rates of American children between 1941 and 1986 matched with national fluctuations in violent crime rates, including robbery and aggravated assault.

Nevins found that blood-lead levels in children were predictors for the violent crime rate two decades later, when those children would be adults.

“Deborah Denno, a law professor at Fordham University School of Law, analyzed data from a long-term government study that followed 487 boys in Philadelphia from age 0 to age 22. She sifted through more than 3,000 variables to find facts that correlated to incarceration and criminality. Denno found that elevated blood- lead levels to be ‘the strongest predictor of disciplinary problems in school kids and the third-strongest predictor of juvenile crime. One of the other two strongest predictors of juvenile crime, previous disciplinary problems, relates back to lead, too.'”

We used to think that lead exposure in children came primarily from old buildings shedding peeling paint and from breathing the dust residue. Now we have another concern: fluoridated water. In 1999, a press release from Dartmouth University in New Hampshire titled “Study Finds Correlation between Fluorides in Water and Lead Levels,” reported that, in a survey analysis of over 280,000 Massachusetts children, the investigators found that silicofluorideschemicals widely used in treating public water supplies-are associated with an increase in children’s absorption of lead. When compared to a similar group of 30 towns that did not use silicofluorides, children in 30 communities that use these chemicals were more than twice as likely to have over 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood.

Roger Masters, awarded the position of Nelson A. Rockefeller Professor of Government Emeritus at Dartmouth College, headed the study. He emphasized that “Silicofluorides are largely untested,” emphasizing that over 90 percent of America’s fluoridated drinking water supplies are treated with silicofluorides. “Virtually all research on fluoridation safety has focused on sodium fluoride, even though the studies in the 1930s showed important biological differences between these two chemicals. The [silicofluorides] correlation with [lead] blood levels is especially serious because lead poisoning is associated with higher rates of learning disabilities, hyperactivity, substance abuse and crime.”