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University Of Pittsburgh Research Shows Early Lead Exposure May Be A Significant Cause Of Juvenile Delinquency

PITTSBURGH, January 6, 2002 — Children exposed to lead have significantly greater odds of developing delinquent behavior, according to a University of Pittsburgh researcher. Results of the study, directed by Herbert Needleman, M.D., professor of child psychiatry and pediatrics, were published in today’s issue of Neurotoxicology and Terotology.

Dr. Needleman, known for his groundbreaking studies on the effects of lead exposure on children that were instrumental in establishing nationwide government bans on lead from paint, gasoline and food and beverage cans, examined 194 youths convicted in the Juvenile Court of Allegheny County, Pa., and 146 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 – 11.0 parts per million (ppm) – compared to 1.5 ppm in the control group.

“This study provides further evidence that delinquent behavior can be caused, in part, by childhood exposure to lead,” said Dr. Needleman. “For years parents have been telling their pediatricians that their children’s behavior changed after they were lead poisoned, and the children became irritable, overactive and aggressive. 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 convicted 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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