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Pitt Research Shows Relationship Betweent Early Lead Exposure and Juvenile Delinquency

BOSTON, May 15, 2000 — Children exposed to lead have significantly greater odds of developing delinquent behavior, according to a University of Pittsburgh researcher. The study results, directed by Herbert Needleman, M.D., professor of child psychiatry and pediatrics, were presented today at the 2000 Pediatric Academic Societies and American Academy of Pediatrics Joint Meeting.

Dr. Needleman, known for his groundbreaking studies on the effects of lead exposure on children that were instrumental in nationwide government bans on lead from paint, gasoline and food and beverage cans, examined 216 youths convicted in the Juvenile Court of Allegheny County, Pa., and 201 non-delinquent controls from high schools in Pittsburgh. Bone lead levels, measured by K X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy of the tibia, showed that the delinquent youths had significantly higher mean concentrations of lead in their bones -- 13.7 parts per million (pm) -- compared to the control group. Those results were true for both whites and African Americans and males and females.

"This study provides further evidence that delinquent behavior can be caused, in part, by childhood exposure to lead," said Dr. Needleman. "Of all the causes of juvenile delinquency, lead exposure is perhaps the most preventable. These results should be a call to action for legislators to protect our children by requiring landlords to not simply disclose known instances of lead paint in their properties, but to remove it."

While this study is the first to show that lead exposure is higher in arrested delinquents, it is part of a growing body of evidence linking lead to cognitive and behavioral problems in children. In 1996, Dr. Needleman published a study of 300 boys in Pittsburgh public schools and found that those with relatively high levels of lead in their bones were more likely to engage in antisocial activities like bullying, vandalism, truancy and shoplifting. In 1979, Dr. Needleman, using measurements of lead in children’s teeth, concluded that children with high lead levels in their teeth, but no outward signs of lead poisoning, had lower IQ scores, shorter attention spans and poorer language skills.

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