Another set of articles linking lead exposure to societal violence are making the rounds—it’s odd how they tend to go in cycles—and the comments of online discussions are, predictably, peppered with refusal to consider the connection.
To sum up the research: The neurotoxicity of lead is well-established. It causes poor impulse control, lowers IQ, and increases aggression. But lead was widely present in the U.S.—in paints, in toys, in fuel, and even in foods—until the 1970s. At that time, the country enacted widespread lead reduction policies and practices. Comparing timelines of crime rates and lead exposure produces interesting data: high lead exposure correlates to high crime rates about twenty years later. Falling lead exposure correlates to falling crime rates about twenty years later.
If you’d like to examine the data and discussions, check out the extensive and exhaustive work of Rick Nevin. Kevin Drum at Mother Jones has written a slew of articles–long and short, over years, on the topic. Here’s a linkfest of his work. For a purely skeptical take on the connection, you can check out the article on Skepticblog, written by a clinical neurologist at Yale who calls the theory, “plausible and reasonably supported by existing evidence.”
Interestingly, many of the articles published in 2013 have called the research “new.” That description says far more about the knowledge of the article writer than the research. Or perhaps it’s just me, considering something “new” only if it has come up in the last year. But the truth is that I cited the lead-crime connection research in 2009, when I taught workshops on the connection between nutritional intake and behavioral issues for Nature’s Sunshine’s National Convention. I scarcely considered the research “new” at that time!
Since I’ve been following the issue, I don’t often waste time reading the comments attached to online articles. The questions being asked and answered in them are the same that were being asked and answered two, four, and five years ago. Today, a quick scan of those comments made me pause, and made me wonder. What is it about the mere possibility that an environmental toxin could push up violent crime statistics that so offends people? What makes it worthy of such denial, of so many urges to disprove, of dismissal and derision?
I had similar questions about the reaction to research demonstrating links between toxoplasmosis and a host of potentially self-destructive behaviors.
We tend to hold a solid belief in self-determination. We make our own decisions, we are the masters of our own minds, and we control every facet of our outward behavior. The notion that any one of those controls could be taken away by a little parasite or microscopic elements terrifies us.
So we ignore the possible connections. We fight against the possible conclusions. We deride the researchers, the data, the folks who look toward non-damaging interventions. We bring up any other possible explanation, with preference given to the things we already support, the things we consider critical to our moral filters. Folks who prefer tough crime policies bring up the increase of incarceration. Folks who are pro-choice point to the legalization of abortion. Folks who ascribe to the theory that drugs are the basis of all evil tout the use of cocaine/crack. Folks who don’t trust the government at all claim the reduction in crime rates is all a hoax. Few want to believe an element in our environment could be at least partially responsible for the sudden surge in crime, nor that its reduction could impact the decrease in crime.
But high-profile crime statistics aren’t the only connection we, as a society and as parents, should consider. As outlined in Lead Poisoning and the Middle Class, lead is still present in our environment, and its impact might be increasing today and in the future. Even what’s considered “low levels” of lead in the blood has been linked to ADHD.
Research as far back as 1993 demonstrated some cognitive benefits following treatment of lead exposure, but other research is inconclusive and conflicting as to whether the damage done by lead exposure can actually be reversed. But all studies agree treatment will halt the progression of problems caused by lead poisoning.
Most online references to the cost of blood lead level screening refer to the fact most insurance companies cover the test, and many people are eligible for government-covered testing depending upon income and zip code. (Why zip code? Because the government still holds to the harmful belief that lead exposure is a low-income-only problem.) A couple references placed the out-of-pocket costs at around $50.
I’ve spoken with numerous parents of kids struggling with behavioral issues–kids who have been labeled as “bad,” kids who can’t keep up with the academic progress of their peers, kids who can’t control their impulses, kids who lash out in anger, kids who are on at least one pharmaceutical intended to rule their behavior. I have never spoken with a parent whose physician recommended, or even mentioned, screening for lead exposure.
Lead screening should be a standard part of every diagnostic visit for cognitive and behavioral issues. It shouldn’t be last on the list, the golly-gee-never-thought-of-that option. The cost of ignoring the issue shouldn’t be paid by children who don’t have a choice.