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Lead Exposure May Increase Violent Behavior


WebMD Health News

May 29, 2001 -- Exposure to lead is known to cause learning problems in children, and many health officials feel the government and industries should do more to remove it from our environment. Now, a new study finds there may be yet another reason to "get the lead out."

The study suggests that lead exposure may make people more prone to engage in violent behavior -- even homicide. The findings appear in the May issue of the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine.

Researchers Paul B. Stretesky, PhD, a sociologist at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colo., and Michael J. Lynch, PhD, a criminologist at the University of South Florida in Tampa, looked at levels of lead in the air in over 3,000 counties in the contiguous U.S. They found that counties with the highest levels of lead in the air had a murder rate four times higher than areas with the least lead in the air.

"This is another study that falls in line with the rest of the research that's says lead is bad," Stretesky tells WebMD. Exactly how lead may affect behavior is not understood, but lead is known to be toxic to the brain, he says.

Previous research has suggested that children exposed to lead have significantly greater odds of developing delinquent behavior. One study compared 216 youths convicted in the Juvenile Court of Allegheny County, Penn., and 201 nondelinquents from high schools in Pittsburgh. Delinquent youths had significantly higher concentrations of lead in their bones, compared to the nondelinquent teens.

"There is increasingly compelling evidence that there is a link to behavioral problems and aggressive behavior, in particular among children exposed to lead," says Bruce Lanphear, MD, associate professor of pediatrics at Children's Hospital Medical Center in Cincinnati.

The link with crime is a little more recent, he says. "But the combined and cumulative evidence of all studies really begins to raise some important questions," Lanphear tells WebMD.

"The best we can say is that lead is a neurotoxin, but we don't know how it's causing aggressive or delinquent behavior, but there seems to be an association, that although not definitive is compelling enough not to be disregarded," he says.

The effect seems to cut across different social strata and ethnic groups.

"The message is that we really need to push for more aggressive regulations to prevent childhood lead exposure from substandard housing and to demand standards from the Environmental Protection Agency to adequately protect children," says Lanphear.

"The association [between lead exposure and violence] is still in its infancy in terms of research," says James R. Campbell, MD, MPH, associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Rochester (N.Y.). "It may be true, but more work needs to be done."

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