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Lead exposure in early life is linked to higher levels of criminal behavior as an adult.

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A recent study by researchers at George Washington University has found that lead exposure during pregnancy or childhood increases the likelihood of engaging in criminal behavior as an adult. Prior research has already established a link between lead exposure and criminal behavior at the population level. However, this is the first review to examine the available data at the individual level of exposure and effects.

The study is the first systematic review to examine the links between individual lead exposure and crime or other antisocial behaviors. The researchers analyzed 17 studies from three countries that developed cohorts and used various methods to measure lead exposure and its effects at different ages, from gestation to adolescence.

“While more individual-level data needs to be collected to verify the connection of the effects of lead exposure during childhood and criminal behavior in adulthood, the evidence we found points in the direction of lead exposure being associated with biological effects in children that have long-term behavioral consequences,” says Maria Jose Talayero Schettino, the study’s lead author and a GW doctoral graduate student.

Lead exposure can cause various health problems, particularly in children. Children absorb lead at higher rates than adults, and lead exposure during pregnancy or childhood can cause irreversible damage to the nervous system, according to Talayero Schettino.

Despite the well-known risks, many countries lack adequate policies to protect people from lead exposure, including pollutants from industrial waste, recycling batteries, paints with lead content, various food sources, and household products such as children’s toys, ceramics, and cookware. Cookware is of special concern, such as pottery from Asia, aluminum cookware from Africa that may contain excess lead, and artisanal pottery from Mesoamerica that is not certified to be lead-free.

Talayero Schettino’s review found a wide range of diverse outcomes associated with lead exposure at different stages of development and later delinquent, criminal, and antisocial behavior. Populations at the lowest socioeconomic strata are at higher risk. She emphasizes that criminal behavior is a complex concept, with many additional factors involved beyond lead exposure during development.

A limitation researchers found was that each study used different definitions to indicate criminal, aggressive or antisocial behavior in adulthood. Another complication was the scarcity of studies with individual-level data, which left wide geographical and demographic gaps. Talayero Schettino says additional studies should include a wider range of regions and countries and utilize a common set of indicators for both exposure and outcome to measure the overall impact. Despite these limitations, Talayero Schettino says that existing data, in conjunction with the available biological evidence, point to the harmful behavioral effects of early exposure.

“There is no safe level of lead exposure for children, and countries should extend all efforts to protect children and pregnant persons from lead containments,” she says. “The evidence in the systematic review supports a strong action by governments and society to act to protect those in most vulnerable conditions.”

The article, “The Association Between Lead Exposure and Crime: A Systematic Review,” was published August 2, 2023 in the PLOS Global Public Health. In addition to Talayero Schettino, the research team was composed of doctoral graduate student Rebecca Robbins, and Emily Smith and Carlos Santos Burgoa, professors of Global Health at GW’s Milken Institute School of Public Health.

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