Lead Astray: New Evidence Links Children with Higher Lead Exposure to School Suspensions and Juvenile Detention

FLINT, MI – JANUARY 26: Tears stream down the face of Morgan Walker, age 5 of Flint, as she gets her finger pricked for a lead screening on January 26, 2016 at Eisenhower Elementary School in Flint, Michigan. Free lead screenings are performed for Flint children 6-years-old and younger, one of several events sponsored by Molina Healthcare following the city’s water contamination and federal state of emergency. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)

When people are in pain or suffering from illness, they are more likely to act in destructive ways that carry negative consequences for both themselves and others. Children are particularly susceptible as they act out when agitated or unhealthy, a plight exacerbated by their common inability to articulate their feelings in a more constructive way.

A recent report authored by economists Anna Aizer and Janet Currie and published in the National Bureau of Economic Research confirms this link between illness and negative outcomes for school children. The working paper, titled “Lead and Juvenile Delinquency: New Evidence from Linked Birth, School and Juvenile Detention Records,” covers new ground by tracking individual children over time to assess the relationship between lead exposure and juvenile behavior. Using relevant data for 120,000 children born 1990-2004 in Rhode Island, the study found strong evidence linking those with higher exposures to lead with a substantially increased probability of school suspensions and juvenile detention.

Given school discipline is commonly administered in a racially disparate manner— and poor and African-American children are more likely to reside in old houses with chipped lead-based paint and neighborhoods with compromised soil— the implications of the study are troubling.

“A huge percentage of the problem resides in populations that oftentimes are invisible,” says Dr. Robert Bullard, Distinguished Professor of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy at Texas Southern University. A prolific author commonly recognized as “the father of environmental justice,” Bullard says this lack of visibility represents how “the vast majority of this country really doesn’t have to deal with lead or address it on a daily basis” so it “tends to be minimized. But this does not detract from the fact that it’s real and very deadly for lots of children in this country.”

To drive home the racially skewed nature of the lead issue, Bullard draws an analogy with drugs in America. “For many years, drugs were in the African-American community and it was treated as a crime,” he says. “But as soon as white folks start overdosing and getting hooked on opioids, it then becomes a health problem. Lead is the same way.”

For those paying attention, what’s clear is the damage lead exposure causes in children. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports, “There is no known identified safe blood lead level.” Even at lower levels, the toxic metal can cause “damage to the brain and nervous system, slowed growth and development, learning and behavior problems (e.g., reduced IQ, ADHD, juvenile delinquency and criminal behavior) and hearing and speech problems.”

Though some still believe lead poisoning is an issue that ended with the 20th century, Bullard notes how the Flint water crisis prompted “the rediscovery of this problem. And when they started reexamining what was happening not just in Flint, but across this country, it was revealed that Flint was not the only place that had problems.”

Bullard clarifies how such problems spawn others. Lead is not just an environmental and health problem, he contends, “It is also a societal problem in that it creates this challenge for children and young people to conform to the rules of our society. Anytime you have children of color that are disproportionately impacted by lead, and anytime you have behavior problems within these children, they are definitely going to be targeted for suspension and for the criminal justice system.”

This, he adds, “is not rocket science.”

Still, while such linkages between lead and poor behavior in children had been suspected for years, getting the actual data to nudge this strong hypothesis toward the realm of science was far from easy. The federal government banned lead-based paint in 1978 and phased out leaded gasoline soon after, so the vast majority of states, 40 altogether, don’t currently require blood-lead tests for children. For the ones that do, identification and compliance is an issue given most children exposed to lead reside in disadvantaged environments with poor services. And even when a child is tested, if the blood is not drawn at the right time or in the right manner, this can further compromise the process.”

Nonetheless, researchers Aizer and Currie not only documented the link between lead and school suspensions, they found the suspended children were also 10 times more likely to end up in juvenile detention. The implications are dire given recent studies reveal over 3000 water systems across the country with documented lead problems.

“At the same time, the EPA, with the current Trump budget, is cutting the lead prevention program’s budget by over $17 million,” laments Bullard. “It’s almost like the EPA is saying ‘We don’t have a problem, so we can cut that.’ That’s the kind of mentality that really makes it difficult to develop proactive policies to prevent children from being poisoned.”

The current administration’s stance becomes even more tragic upon considering, of all of the intractable and seemingly incurable problems facing government here in the 21st century, the lead problem is actually winnable.

“Lead poisoning is still the No. 1 environmental threat to children and it is preventable,” says Bullard, stressing “this is not something that has to happen.”

“So, it makes a whole lot of sense if we invest in prevention,” he continues, noting it will pay off “when it comes to kids succeeding in our educational systems and not being pushed into our criminal justice system, which is much more expensive and damaging to our society.”

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