Higher Levels of Lead in Drinking Water Associated with Increased Risk of Teen Delinquency

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Higher Levels of Lead in Drinking Water Associated with Increased Risk of Teen Delinquency  

Jim Windell

           The Flint water crisis, which began in 2014 when the Michigan city switched its drinking water supply from Detroit’s system to the Flint River in a cost-saving move. Subsequent testing of the water uncovered a series of major water quality and health issues for Flint residents –- issues that were chronically ignored, overlooked, and discounted by government officials.

         Ongoing studies would later reveal that the contaminated water in Flint was contributing to a doubling –- and in some cases, tripling –- of the incidence of elevated blood levels in the city's children. All of the problem s related to contaminated water in Flint increased public awareness of the dangers of high levels of lead in drinking water.

          But this is not a Flint problem. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has ranked childhood lead (Pb) poisoning prevention as one of the 10 great public health achievements of the past several decades. But the good news is that blood Pb in the U.S. population has decreased by nearly 94% since the 1970s. This reduction is mainly due to public health interventions including bans on Pb in paint, gasoline, and food cans; limits on Pb content in household plumbing and fixtures; and corrosion control programs to prevent Pb exposure from community water supplies.

           The bad news though is that despite these reductions of lead exposure, recent public health surveillance data and epidemiologic studies indicate that Pb exposure continues to cause harm. In 2018, the CDC identified 87,144 children in the U.S. under age six with blood Pb concentrations above its reference level for elevated blood Pb. However, the true number of children with elevated blood Pb is much higher, because these data only account for a small fraction of U.S. children. Several states – and Michigan is one of those states – did not report 2018 blood Pb surveillance data to the CDC. And even in the states and communities reporting blood Pb surveillance data, only 17.6% of children under age six were tested. In addition, an increasingly large body of evidence indicates that neurocognitive damage to children occurs at blood Pb concentrations much lower than the established level for safe exposure to lead.

            Recent research coming from Indiana University indicates that lack of access to a regulated community water supply may be an under recognized, insufficiently controlled source of Pb exposure risk in children. Currently, 13% of U.S. households rely on private wells. Domestic wells are not regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act and are, therefore, rarely tested for lead or treated to prevent lead dissolution from household plumbing and fixtures.

            Jackie MacDonald Gibson, author of the study and chair of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at the Indiana University School of Public Health – Bloomington, noted that lead in water from any source causes equal harm, but children with private well water are more susceptible to being exposed to lead in water because most private well owners do not have corrosion control systems in place to prevent leaching of lead from well components, plumbing and fixtures into household water. In contrast, community water systems are required to monitor their water for lead and to establish corrosion control systems if elevated levels of lead are detected.

            The study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that children who get their water from private wells before age six have higher blood lead levels. Gibson and colleagues analyzed a 20-year dataset linking blood lead measurements for 13,580 children under the age of six to their drinking water source before age six, and to reported juvenile delinquency records after the children reached age 14. They found that blood lead levels were approximately 11% higher in children relying on private wells, compared to children provided with community water service.

            The results of the study show that early childhood exposure to lead in drinking water is associated with an increased teen delinquency risk. In fact, children with elevated lead levels prior to age six have a 21% higher risk of being reported for any delinquency after age 14, and a 38% increased risk of having a record for a serious complaint, such as felony property or weapons offenses and misdemeanor assault.

           “We know that lead exposure early in life has been linked to lower IQ, reduced lifetime earnings and an increased risk for behavioral problems and criminal activity," Gibson said. “[But] this research highlights the need for recognition of the risks to children relying on private well water and for new programs to ensure they have access to clean drinking water. Failing to do so imposes burdens not just on the affected children and their families but also on society at large.”

           Gibson added that this research confirms the urgent need to prevent early-life exposure to lead in drinking water. “Technology to solve this problem is readily available, and putting it in place is a matter of political will and should be part of upgrading infrastructure in the U.S.,” she said.

           To read the original article, find it with this reference:

Gibson, J.M., MacDonald, J.J., Fisher, M., Chen, X., Pawlick, A. & Cook, P.J. (2022). Early life lead exposure from private well water increases juvenile delinquency risk among US teens.  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 119(6), e2110694119; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2110694119

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