Lead Exposure as Child, Lower IQ as Adult?


They established that higher childhood blood levels were associated with lower adult IQ scores almost three decades later, reflecting cognitive decline following childhood lead exposure.

Researchers used data from Otago University's Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study, which has been tracking 1000 people born in 1972 and 1973.

Childhood blood lead level was associated with lower adult IQ scores almost three decades later, reflecting cognitive decline following childhood lead exposure.

"This suggests at the very least that individuals don't fully recover from lead-related cognitive injuries received in childhood", said lead study author Aaron Reuben of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. "Interventions of this sort are meant to forestall the sorts of effects we've measured in this study", she said.

Children who were over 10 micrograms of lead attained occupations with socioeconomic status levels lower than those of their parents. The definition of lead poisoning was different then too; it was only in 2012 that the CDC reduced the level of acceptable lead exposure someone could have by half (agencies like the EPA have stuck to the old watermark). Although many of those children are eligible for a range of interventions, including nutritional and educational programs, Reuben and his co-authors note that short-lived public responses may not be enough given the potential lifelong effects.

"That was the unique thing about this group of people", Reuben said. "Even mild cognitive impairment really seemed to have a knock-on effect to the social trajectories people's lives took". He and his colleagues just published the results of a big study on how lead exposure as a child can impact a person's life as an adult.

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High lead levels in New Zealand cities during the 1970s and 1980s appear to have led to a loss of intelligence in adults, researchers say. "It was a much more uniform population, a homogeneous population racially, socioeconomically", said Maitreyi Mazumdar, an assistant professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, who was not involved in the study. "This made it possible for us to more clearly estimate the association between high lead and low IQ".

He had previously carried out research which showed there was a 20-year delay in banning lead from petrol because of deliberate lobbying by the lead additives industry, poorly informed and vacillating politicians, and a bureaucracy which lacked technical expertise. "There are health effects we need to prepare for".

In either case, lead can accumulate in the child's bloodstream. The way that affected them over an extended period could differ from the consequences of relatively short but severe exposures, as happened in Flint.

They found that tested children with elevated levels of the toxic metal in their blood were more likely to score lower on an IQ test taken at age 38 than they did at age 11 compared to those with lower levels, and they were also more likely to have their financial fortunes worsen.

If anything, that reality may only worsen the influence lead could have on developing children's brains today, since poverty often makes us all the more vulnerable to environmental toxins. That includes more stringent lead-abatement efforts, more rigorous screening, more determined cleanup of the "vast reservoirs of lead that remain" in the environment, in everything from paint to plumbing, he said. "It suggests that having a good lead policy is the best education policy you can have, as it is an incredibly effective way to help kids", Wolpaw Reyes concluded.