Childhood lead exposure is a purported risk factor for antisocial behavior, but prior studies either relied on indirect measures of exposure or did not follow participants into adulthood to examine the relationship between lead exposure and criminal activity in young adults. The objective of this study was to determine if prenatal and childhood blood lead concentrations are associated with arrests for criminal offenses.
Methods and Findings
Pregnant women were recruited from four prenatal clinics in Cincinnati, Ohio if they resided in areas of the city with a high concentration of older, lead-contaminated housing. We studied 250 individuals, 19 to 24 y of age, out of 376 children who were recruited at birth between 1979 and 1984. Prenatal maternal blood lead concentrations were measured during the first or early second trimester of pregnancy. Childhood blood lead concentrations were measured on a quarterly and biannual basis through 6.5 y. Study participants were examined at an inner-city pediatric clinic and the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center in Cincinnati, Ohio. Total arrests and arrests for offenses involving violence were collected from official Hamilton County, Ohio criminal justice records. Main outcomes were the covariate-adjusted rate ratios (RR) for total arrests and arrests for violent crimes associated with each 5 μg/dl (0.24 μmol/l) increase in blood lead concentration. Adjusted total arrest rates were greater for each 5 μg/dl (0.24 μmol/l) increase in blood lead concentration: RR = 1.40 (95% confidence interval [CI] 1.07–1.85) for prenatal blood lead, 1.07 (95% CI 0.88–1.29) for average childhood blood lead, and 1.27 (95% CI 1.03–1.57) for 6-year blood lead. Adjusted arrest rates for violent crimes were also greater for each 5 μg/dl increase in blood lead: RR = 1.34 (95% CI 0.88–2.03) for prenatal blood lead, 1.30 (95% CI 1.03–1.64) for average childhood blood lead, and 1.48 (95% CI 1.15–1.89) for 6-year blood lead.
Prenatal and postnatal blood lead concentrations are associated with higher rates of total arrests and/or arrests for offenses involving violence. This is the first prospective study to demonstrate an association between developmental exposure to lead and adult criminal behavior.
Kim Dietrich and colleagues find an association between developmental exposure to lead and adult criminal behavior.
Violent crime is an increasing problem in many countries, but why are some people more aggressive than others? Being male has been identified as a risk factor for violent criminal behavior in several studies, as have exposure to tobacco smoke before birth, having antisocial parents, and belonging to a poor family. Another potential risk factor for antisocial behavior as an adult is exposure to lead during childhood, although few studies have looked directly at whether childhood lead exposure is linked with criminal behavior in adulthood. Lead is a toxic metal that damages the nervous system when ingested or inhaled. It is present throughout the environment because of its widespread use in the past in paint, solder for water pipes, and gasoline. In 1978, 13.5 million US children had a blood lead level above 10 μg/dl, the current US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention blood lead level of concern (the average US blood lead level is 2 μg/dl). Lead paint and solder were banned in 1978 and 1986, respectively, by the US federal government; leaded gasoline was finally phased out in 1996. By 2002, only 310,000 US children had a blood lead level above 10 μg/dl. However, children exposed to lower levels of lead than this—through ingesting flakes or dust residues of old lead paint, for example—can have poor intellectual development and behavioral problems including aggression.
Why Was This Study Done?
Although some studies have suggested that childhood lead exposure is associated with later criminal behavior, these studies have often relied on indirect measurements of childhood lead exposure such as bone lead levels in young adults or a history of lead poisoning. Other studies that have measured childhood lead exposure directly have not followed their participants into adulthood. In this new study, the researchers investigate the association between actual measurements of prenatal and childhood blood lead concentrations and criminal arrests in early adulthood to get a clearer idea about whether early lead exposure is associated with subsequent violent behavior.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
Between 1979 and 1984, the researchers recruited pregnant women living in poor areas of Cincinnati, which had a high concentration of older, lead-contaminated housing, into the Cincinnati Lead Study. They measured the women's blood lead concentrations during pregnancy as an indication of their offspring's prenatal lead exposure and the children's blood lead levels regularly until they were six and half years old. They then obtained information from the local criminal justice records on how many times each of the 250 offspring had been arrested between becoming 18 years old and the end of October 2005. The researchers found that increased blood lead levels before birth and during early childhood were associated with higher rates of arrest for any reason and for violent crimes. For example, for every 5 μg/dl increase in blood lead levels at six years of age, the risk of being arrested for a violent crime as a young adult increased by almost 50% (the “relative risk” was 1.48).
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings provide strong evidence that early lead exposure is a risk factor for criminal behavior, including violent crime, in adulthood. One possibility, which the authors were unable to assess in this study, is that lead exposure impairs intelligence, which in turn makes it more likely that a criminal offender will be caught (i.e., arrested). The authors discuss a number of limitations in their study—for example, they probably did not capture all criminal behavior (since most criminal behavior does not lead to arrest). Although both environmental lead levels and crime rates have dropped over the last 30 years in the US, the overall reduction was not uniform—inner-city children remain particularly vulnerable to lead exposure. The findings therefore suggest that a further reduction in childhood lead exposure might be an important and achievable way to reduce violent crime.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.0050101.
A PLoS Medicine Perspective article by David Bellinger further discusses this study and a related paper on childhood lead exposure and brain volume reduction in adulthood
Study researcher Kim Dietrich can be heard talking about “The Lethal Legacy of Lead”, a brief MP3 about lead exposure and violent crime
Toxtown, an interactive site from the US National Library of Medicine, provides information on environmental health concerns including exposure to lead (in English and Spanish)
The US Environmental Protection Agency provides information on lead in paint, dust, and soil and on protecting children from lead poisoning (in English and Spanish)
MedlinePlus provides a list of links to information on lead poisoning (in English and Spanish)
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides information about its Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program
The UK Health Protection Agency also provides information about lead and its health hazards