New research suggests children living in industrial areas with higher levels of atmospheric lead may face an increased risk of developing a myriad of psychological and behavioral issues, which may follow them into adulthood, harming the overall well-being, longevity of life, and economic prospects of millions of people.
In a new study published in the July issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), an international group of researchers reviewed atmospheric lead exposure impacts in men and women from the U.S. and Europe, finding individuals exposed to high levels of airborne lead as children developed less adaptive personality profiles in adulthood.
While natural concentrations of lead in the atmosphere are considered generally low, certain areas in close proximity to industrial plants processing metals, incinerators, utilities, lead-acid batteries and other products have historically contained higher atmospheric lead concentrations.
The multi-decade study, which was started in the 1960’s, analyzed data on atmospheric lead levels across 269 counties in the United States and 37 European nations, and surveyed data from over 1.5 million people who grew up in these areas to assess normal-range personality traits.
According to the findings, U.S. and European residents who grew up in areas with higher levels of atmospheric lead had less adaptive personality profiles in adulthood, including lower conscientiousness, lower agreeableness, and higher neuroticism, even when accounting for socioeconomic status.
The study indicates childhood exposure to higher concentrations of airborne lead may adversely affect personality traits, harming people’s well-being, life expectancy and economic prospects throughout life.
Researchers warn that even low levels of airborne lead exposure have been linked to lifelong consequences, such as lower IQ’s and criminal behavioral traits. However, the study indicates these consequences may be even more extensive than previously thought, and affect personality traits that influence nearly every aspect of an individual’s life.
Those who develop less adaptive personality profiles in adulthood are subject to far-reaching societal consequences including overall well-being to career earning potential, according to researchers.
Although childhood lead poisoning is considered the most preventable environmental disease among young children, more than half a million children in the U.S. have lead blood levels above 5 micrograms per deciliter, the “level of concern” reference set by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Sources of lead exposure include lead-based paint, which was used in homes constructed through 1978, lead naturally occurring in soil, renovation repairs, old plumbing, old playground equipment, water, industrial pollution, and household dust contaminated from other exposures.
Lead paint has been banned in the U.S., yet many homes nationwide still have the toxic paint, and as they age there is a continuing risk the paint may chip or flake off of the walls, which poses a serious risk of lead poisoning for young children who ingest the paint chips.
Recent years have also seen a focus on lead in drinking water, stemming from the Flint water crisis, during which a change to the water system resulted in high levels of lead in the city’s drinking water, causing thousands of children to suffer lead exposure and, potentially, lead poisoning.
Lead poisoning can pose serious health risks to children. A study published in 2013 indicated even low levels of lead in the blood can affect a child’s school performance, especially reading readiness for children entering kindergarten. Other effects include injury to the nervous system, brain damage, seizures, growth retardation, mental retardation, coma, and even death.