Childhood lead exposure can result in unhealthy personalities, less success in adulthood

AUSTIN, Texas — Lead exposure during childhood could end up resulting in poorer personalities and less successful lives when kids grow up, a new study warns. Researchers from the University of Texas at Austin finds children who live in places with high levels of lead pollution are more likely to become neurotic and less agreeable as adults.

Study authors sampled more than 1.5 million people across 269 counties in the United States and 37 European countries. The highly toxic metal, once used to make a wide range of domestic products in the past, has largely been phased out since the 1970s. However, small amounts continue to float around the water and atmosphere. This can build up inside the body over time, especially among children, who absorb it faster.

Now, researchers believe this exposure may lead to a higher of developing unhealthy personality traits as children mature. These could undermine children’s chances of success when it comes to maintaining relationships and pursuing a career.

“Links between lead exposure and personality traits are quite impactful, because we take our personalities with us everywhere,” says Dr. Ted Schwaba in a university release.

“Even a small negative effect of lead on personality traits, when you aggregate it across millions of people and all the daily decisions and behaviors that our personality influences, can have really massive effects on well-being, productivity and longevity.”

Younger generations are growing up in healthier environments

The team asked participants to complete an online personality questionnaire during this project. They then used historic data from the Environmental Protection Agency to determine the amount of lead in the atmosphere in each location.

Results show adults who grew up in places where lead levels were high were less agreeable and conscientious. Those in their 20s and 30s were also more likely to be neurotic compared to adults who lived in places with less contamination as children.

“These three traits — conscientiousness, agreeableness and low neuroticism — make up a large part of what we would consider a mature, psychologically healthy personality and are strong predictors of our success or failure in relationships and at work,” Dr. Schwaba adds. “Normally, across the lifespan, people become more conscientious and agreeable, and less neurotic.”

To test their theory further, the researchers examined the impact of the 1970 Clean Air Act, which imposed new limits on air pollution levels in cities across the U.S. People born after pollution levels started falling had healthier psychological personality traits later in life.

Lead is a global problem for children

Researchers then replicated their experiment in Europe, where lead was phased out later than it was in America. Again, people who had grown up with high levels of lead pollution were less agreeable and more neurotic. However, the findings regarding conscientiousness did not match up as well.

“For a long time, we’ve known lead exposure is harmful, but each new wave of research seems to identify new ways in which lead exposure harms society,” Dr. Schwaba explains. “Though there’s much less lead in the atmosphere today, lead remains in pipes, the topsoil and groundwater. And these sources of lead exposure tend to disproportionately harm people of color — Black children are twice as likely to have high levels of lead in their blood as white children.”

“From an economic standpoint, from a social justice standpoint, or really any way you look at it, it’s incredibly important to limit lead exposure as much as possible,” the study author concludes.

The findings appear in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

SWNS writer Tom Campbell contributed to this report.