Lead Exposure in Kids

For use as a motor fuel only. Contains lead (Tetraethyl)
Gas Pump Lead Warning by Joe Mabel (2008) CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lead_poisoning#/media/File:Gas_pump_lead_warning.jpg

One thing about hanging out in the woods is that you can be kind of oblivious to the chaos and suffering going on in the real world. I had a vague idea from friends’ Facebook posts last week that something was going on in Baltimore, but didn’t delve too deeply.

Today, I read Terence McCoy’s article from last week’s Washington Post about how Freddie Gray (the young man who died last week in Baltimore after being arrested) suffered from childhood lead poisoning due to growing up in housing with deteriorating lead paint.

McCoy reports:
“Before Freddie Gray was injured in police custody last month, before he died and this city was plunged into rioting, his life was defined by failures in the classroom, run-ins with the law and an inability to focus on anything for very long.
Many of those problems began when he was a child and living in this house, according to a 2008 lead-poisoning lawsuit filed by Gray and his siblings against the property owner. The suit resulted in an undisclosed settlement.
Reports of Gray’s history with lead come at a time when the city and nation are still trying to understand the full ramifications of lead poisoning. Advocates and studies say it can diminish cognitive function, increase aggression and ultimately exacerbate the cycle of poverty that is already exceedingly difficult to break.”

On today’s episode of the NPR radio show “Here and Now,” host Robin Young interviewed University of Cincinnati professor of environmental health and epidemiology, Dr. Kim Dietrich, an expert on environmental lead poisoning.
Early exposure to lead carries a higher risk for involvement in criminal acts as an adult. MRI studies in lead-affected individuals indicated brain changes in regions associated with impulse control and judgment (executive functions), as well as cognitive impairment. However, Dietrich stresses to his patients, “This is not your destiny. You still have control of your life.” (There is not yet a transcript available for this interview, but it’s well worth a listen.)

Lead paint was banned in 1978, but older homes may still contain some lead paint. Kids can be exposed by ingesting lead paint dust or dust-contaminated soils. For more infomation on preventing childhood lead poisoning, check out the CDC Lead information site.

The history of lead paint marketing and the discovery of lead toxicity in children in the early 20th century is a sad and fascinating story. I remember hearing either David Rosner or Gerald Markowitz speak about their work when I was an undergrad. Click here for their paper with vintage lead paint advertisements.

Markowitz and Rosner also write about the more systematic institutional failure to deal with environmental lead (in gasoline and in paint) in their book “The Lead Wars (2013),” reviewed here by Helen Epstein in the New York Review of Books.

Lead poisoning doesn’t just happen in the inner city. The small town of Herculaneum, MO had been home to a lead smelter for over 100 years. Though the smelter closed in 2013, the town was the subject of a 60 minutes story in 2003 called A Diet of Lead

For a wider historical perspective on lead poisoning, see Lead Poisoning: Historical Aspects of a Paradigmatic “Occupational and Environmental Disease” by Riva et al (2012).


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