By Susan Baldrige sbaldrige@LNPnews.com
Gil Smart gsmart@LNPnews.com
Lead is poison. It's a neurotoxin that can cause a child to struggle in school — and beyond.
"Kids exposed to lead are seven times more likely to end up in the juvenile justice system than kids who are not exposed to lead," said Dr. Jeffrey Martin, a local family physician who is spearheading a coalition to get more kids tested for lead poisoning here.
There’s a lot of lead in Lancaster County. But no one can say for sure whether that’s a factor in local crime rates; experts say it’s difficult to establish a causal link between crime and lead levels, even though a growing body of research suggests a connection between the two.
Still, lead poisoning exacts costs from society, said Martin.
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“If you have even 60 to 70 kids who have lead exposure to the point that they have a significant behavior and health issues, you're talking about more special education funding, more therapy and maybe more incarceration,” said Martin. “Last year we had 200 kids with elevated lead levels.”
“This is a train wreck in slow motion for Lancaster County,” he said.
Breaking down the cost
Lead in blood is measured in micrograms per deciliter; five is considered elevated, and “the number of kids in Lancaster County with a blood lead level about five is just over 13 percent,” said Martin.
The national average is 4 to 5 percent, he said.
SILENT MENACE: LIVING WITH LEAD
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But there’s no systematic efforts to eradicate lead paint in older homes, or find and eliminate lead that may still be present in the soil at old industrial sites.
Most people don't even know they have lead in their home and don't know to be cautious during renovations.
“If you’re scraping the paint yourself, you can poison the whole family,” said Dr. Marilyn Howarth, director of Occupational and Environmental Consultation Services at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. “I've seen people who come in to get tested only after their animal died.”
Studies show effects
Study after study shows the effects of lead are lasting and costly.
One extensive study conducted by Duke University in 2007 found that children's blood lead levels had a direct correlation to their standardized test scores.
Using records from more than 35,000 children, researchers documented an average 15 percent deficit in reading and math scores for children who had elevated blood lead levels, even just slightly elevated levels.
Another study looked closely at several hundred children who had been exposed to lead in the 1970s. Researchers followed the children to adulthood and found that group had a higher rate of reading difficulties, more school failures and lower grades than their peers.
A more recent study by the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine examined 301 elementary school children with elevated lead levels and found the students scored higher in attention deficit, aggression and delinquency than other students.
Researchers in Ohio identified 250 children whose mothers were exposed to lead and had elevated blood lead levels when they were born. The research team followed those individuals until adulthood and found that by the time those 250 subjects reached the ages of 19-24, they were responsible for 800 arrests, 14 percent of them for violent crimes.
The study also showed that for every 5-point increase in lead levels at age 6, the likelihood of being arrested for a violent crime as a young adult increased by almost 50 percent.
In fact, research has begun to show that exposure to lead is the most likely indicator of juvenile delinquency.
“A correlation between increased blood lead levels and crime rates has been shown in the U.S. and internationally,” said Howarth. “But we need to better understand the mechanism of how this might work. We do not yet know all of the factors that contribute to making someone aggressive or violent so it is hard to know exactly where and how lead may be contributing.”
Neither the Lancaster County Prison nor the Youth Intervention Center test inmates or ask if they were ever diagnosed with high lead levels.
“We can ask the question, however, correlation does not mean cause and effect,” said Todd Haskins, vice president of Operations for PrimeCare Medical Inc., the prison’s health care provider.
Some 95 percent of residences in Lancaster City were built prior to 1978, and some parts of the city have among the highest percentage of kids in the state who prove to have elevated blood lead levels. Asked if this could be a factor in Lancaster’s crime rate, police Chief Keith Sadler said he doubted it.
“A lot of the criminals we seem to lock up weren't born and raised here,” said Sadler, meaning high lead levels in the city couldn’t be a factor.
Problem will persist
Penn’s Howarth said experts know of only one way to solve the problem of lead for good — but it’s not feasible.
“If we suddenly had enough money to go into homes and remove lead, that has clearly been shown to be effective,” said Penn’s Howarth. “But short of that, all these other things we advise people to do, like wet mop — will that really be enough to prevent your child from being poisoned? It’s not that easy to show a clear benefit.
“And I think that’s a problem we’re going to have for a long time.”