WASHINGTON — Exposure to lead during childhood or even in the womb may predispose individuals to criminal behavior later in life, a new study reveals. A research team from George Washington University discovered that children who had higher levels of the toxic metal in their bodies were more likely to engage in criminal activities as adults. They found this correlation applicable to children exposed to lead both during their mother’s pregnancy and their first few years of life.
“Children do not absorb or metabolize lead in the same way as adults and are far more susceptible to the negative impacts of lead exposure due to a hyper-permeable blood-brain barrier and rapidly developing organ systems,” says Dr. Maria Jose Talayero Schettino, the lead researcher of the study, in the journal PLOS Global Public Health. “This review demonstrates an association between exposure to lead and the later development of delinquent, antisocial, and criminal behavior.”
Ingesting lead-based paint and lead-contaminated dust from older buildings is the most common means of exposure. Although lead paint was banned in the United States in 1978, it often lies beneath newer coats and can contaminate both air and soil when it is sanded.
The researchers’ findings were drawn from an evaluation of 17 previous studies. Lead exposure is known to cause cardiac issues, kidney damage, immune system dysfunction, reproductive problems, and impaired neurodevelopmental function in children.
Past research has also identified statistical associations between lead exposure and criminal behavior, both on individual and population levels. However, the results of these individual-level studies have often been inconsistent.
The meta-analysis utilized a variety of methods to measure lead exposure, including analyzing blood, bones, or teeth, and explored the effects of exposure at different life stages, such as in the womb, during early and late childhood, and during adolescence or adulthood.
After reviewing all the evidence, the researchers found that the results of the studies varied. Some found no statistical links between early childhood lead exposure and later delinquent behavior. One study found a link between exposure and antisocial behavior, but not arrests. Several other studies established links between early childhood lead exposure and later arrests, including those related to drugs. Some studies had stronger statistical evidence than others.
Based on their review, the researchers suggest that an individual exposed to lead in the womb or in early childhood may have a higher risk of engaging in criminal behavior as an adult. However, they also acknowledged the need for more individual-level data to solidify this connection.
“Policy action to prevent lead exposure is of utmost importance as our research shows an excess risk for criminal behavior in adulthood exists when an individual is exposed to lead in utero or during childhood. Preventing lead exposure is crucial to safeguard public health and promote a safer society for all,” the team concludes in a media release.
South West News Service writer Jim Leffman contributed to this report.