Lead exposure alters the trajectory of children's lives decades later, study finds

Those who had high blood levels of lead as children -more than 10 micrograms per deciliter - scored on average 4 points lower on the IQ scale at age 38 than kids exposed to lower levels of lead.

Dr Nick Wilson, of the University of Otago's Department of Public Health in Wellington, said the oil industry, and specifically Associated Octel which supplied the lead added to New Zealand petrol, should take some of the blame for the damage caused before lead was banned from being added to petrol in 1996. Childhood lead exposure ascertained as blood lead levels were measured at age 11 years. Moreover, participants above this level of concern showed a mean decline of -1.68 IQ points from childhood to adulthood, said the authors - in contrast to those who were at or below the worldwide level of concern, whose IQ level rose by 1.22 points on average (2.90-point difference, 95% CI 1.20-4.61, P 0.001), said the authors. "The vast majority of the children were just elevated, just the 5 micrograms [per decilitre of blood], so they really lost only one IQ point, but there were a few children who had quite high lead levels and they are the ones that are bringing the effect to the fore".

The study showed that for each five-microgram increase in childhood blood lead, a person lost about 1.5 IQ points by age 38.

And 94 percent of children had blood-lead levels greater than five micrograms per deciliter, the level at which the Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends to be a public-health intervention.

Another finding: Adults who had higher lead levels at age 11 had poorer-paying jobs than those with lower lead levels in childhood.

And although lead was phased out of gasoline in New Zealand and the United States, soil surrounding major roadways is still a hazard. While lead paint was banned in housing construction in NY in 1960, buildings built before 1960 still have high amounts of lead which landlords, especially in impoverished neighborhoods, are reluctant to remove. For the study, the team included 1,037 participants from New Zealand. The children growing up in 1970s New Zealand likely experienced ongoing lead exposures during childhood, mainly from emissions in the air.

Lead is a powerful neurotoxin that can accumulate in a child's bloodstream, then settle in the bones, teeth and soft tissues and build up in the body. Children playing outside either inhaled lead-laden dust or swallowed small amounts of leaded soil, which remains in the body.

The researchers also compared changes in social standing using the New Zealand Socio-economic Index.

"Regardless of where you start in life, lead is going to exert a downward pull", said Avshalom Caspi, Edward M. Arnett Professor of psychology & neuroscience and psychiatry & behavioral sciences at Duke, who is a co-author on the paper. The occupations they held at age 38 tended to be slightly less well-paid or prestigious than their parents had.

Still, the findings were stark enough to prompt David C. Bellinger, a professor of environmental health at Harvard, to write in an accompanying JAMA editorial that much more needs to be done to eliminate lead exposures in every form. The authors noted that 259 participants had blood lead levels above the worldwide level of concern (10 µg/dL) and 531 participants had blood lead levels above the current reference value of 5 µg/dL.

Main author Aaron Reuben, a Duke PhD candidate, said the lower job status was "partially but significantly explained by the loss of IQ".

'The cognitive deficits associated with lead persisted for decades, and showed in the kinds of occupations people got, ' he said.

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