By Xantha Leatham, Deputy Science Editor for the Daily Mail and Luke Andrews Health Reporter for Dailymail.Com
Updated: August 1, 2023 at 20.11
Exposure to lead early in life is associated with a higher risk of criminal behavior in adulthood, a review suggests.
The metal is toxic to the body and has been linked to a wide range of health problems, including kidney disease, infertility and delays in mental development.
Common sources include pre-1970s household paint, contaminated soil, vintage toys, and some traditional medicines and cosmetics — but tap water is also a major source, with more than 12 million lead pipes believed to be in the United States.
Now, a review of 17 studies has concluded that lead exposure in the womb or early life increases the risk of being arrested in adulthood, especially for drug-related offenses.
The researchers did not theorize why people exposed to lead might be more likely to commit crimes later in life.
But this may be associated with lead exposure causing a lower IQ and possibly leading to problems with communication, making antisocial behavior more likely.
Dr. Maria Jose Talayero Schettino, an environmental health researcher who led the study, added: ‘Children do not absorb or metabolize lead in the same way as adults and are far more susceptible to the negative effects of lead exposure due to a hyperpermeable blood-brain barrier and rapidly developing organ systems.
READ MORE: Lead pipes by the state exposed
Of the 9.2 million lead pipes in the United States, Florida was home to the most with 1.16 million pipes. The industrial states of Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania came in second, third and fourth.
“This review shows a link between exposure to lead and the later development of criminal, antisocial and delinquent behaviour.
“Together with the available biological evidence, this review shows that there is an exaggerated risk of criminal behavior in adulthood when an individual is exposed to lead in utero or during childhood.”
Limitations of the review included that not all included studies found an association between lead exposure and a higher risk of committing crime.
Another was that it combined studies conducted in the slums of Brazil, the poorest regions of Ohio and the South Island of New Zealand.
This makes it difficult to determine whether the criminal behavior was due to lead exposure or other factors.
But the team from George Washington University in DC said their review generally suggested that a person exposed to lead in the womb or early childhood may be at a higher risk of engaging in criminal behavior as an adult.
Writing in the journal Plus Global Public HealthThey said: ‘Policy action to prevent lead exposure is of the utmost importance as our research shows that there is an exaggerated risk of criminal behavior in adulthood when a person is exposed to lead in utero or during childhood.
“Preventing lead exposure is critical to protecting public health and promoting a safer society for all.”
Common sources include pre-1970s household paints, contaminated soil, vintage toys, and some traditional medicines and cosmetics.
Tap water is also a potential source, with more than 12 million lead pipes still in use across the country — especially in Florida — despite being banned in the 1980s.
Service pipes – which connect homes to the water mains – are still made of lead, estimates suggest, which pose a risk as the lead can escape and contaminate the water.
There are also fears of wider contamination in the US as lead dumped by factories and mines seeps into local water supplies, putting residents at risk.
Once absorbed, the lead travels in the bloodstream and accumulates in soft tissues – such as the kidneys, liver and lungs – which over time can lead to problems for these organs.
The substance is also able to cross the blood-brain barrier and damage neurons, leading to problems with learning, IQ and developmental delays.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there is no safe blood level of lead for children, and parents are advised to keep their children away from the substance.
Warning signs of lead exposure are often difficult to spot, although over time this can lead to a lower IQ, reduced ability to pay attention, and underachievement in school.