Case Think: 15 years after being effectively removed from the US market, the prolific danger of leaded gasoline becomes clearer

Submitted by Norm Roulet on Sat, 03/26/2011 - 18:18.

Thanks to Laura McShane for pointing out an excellent article on lead poisoning research at Case Western Reserve University, in the Fall/Winter 2010 Think Magazine - with multimedia features - on-line at Getting the Lead Out: Fifteen years after being effectively removed from the U.S. market, the prolific danger of leaded gasoline becomes clearer

This reports on Childhood lead exposure and uptake in teeth in the Cleveland area during the era of leaded gasoline - a recent Case Western Reserve University-affiliated analysis of the lead burden of Cleveland children through the period when leaded gasoline was introduced and later phased out (from about 1930 to 1990), surfacing critical implications.

Comparison of relative temporal changes in lead concentration in tooth enamel and lake sediments, and relative changes in the total amount of lead additives to gasoline
Comparison of relative temporal changes in lead concentration in tooth enamel and lake sediments, and relative changes in the total amount of lead additives to gasoline. Maximum absolute values and symbols are:  4.94 μg/g (teeth, smoothed data, uninterrupted line), 72.7 ppm (“new core Lake Erie sediment, triangles), 41.1 ppm  (Graney et al., 1995 Lake Erie sediment, open circles), and 253,000 mt of lead additives to gasoline produced in the US, closed circles (see Methods).

I wrote about this important research on realNEO - In honor of the Reclaiming Vacant Properties conference, reflections on lead poisoning and vacant property in Cleveland - where I observed:

While I don't recall it being reported in Cleveland before, Thaindian News, of Bangkok, Thailand, reported, on June 16, 2010, Leaded gasoline chief culprit for 20th century neurological defects, which raises significant concerns about lead poisoning issues in Cleveland, Ohio, and America-wide, finding “It raises the question, has leaded gasoline had a lasting effect on many present-day Cleveland adults?

The conclusions explain much about Cleveland's past and present conditions - and the conditions of our citizens - and raise significant concerns for Cleveland's future, which community leaders and government must address at all levels, to the White House... regarding lead poisoning in Northeast Ohio from the 1930s to now.

The Case Think article on this research concluded with the same concern:

For now, the Cleveland Department of Public Health's lead poisoning program focuses on getting children tested and remediating homes with lead paint. No determination, though, has been made about whether the study indicates the need for expanded soil cleanup, says Matt Carroll, a department spokesman.

"Environmental impacts on adults would be of interest," he says, "but we're very much laser-focused on young children."

Robbins says the public may have a responsibility to widen that focus.

"If we're correct that the levels they were facing at the peak were 48 micrograms per deciliter, that blood level is associated with lots of problems," he explains. "So it's not just a guess they would have problems—it's highly likely. We kind of owe it to them to help."

In my coverage of this research, I observed:

After leaded gasoline had been largely outlawed in America, in 1995, around 25% of Cleveland children had confirmed blood lead levels greater than 15 μg/dl... showing how great our lead burden was and is here, beyond the leaded gas days.

Noting one study has found 2.5 fold increases in juvenile arrests for violent crimes for children with mean PbB of only 26 μg/dl, and studies have found increases in later delinquent and antisocial behaviors related to high childhood lead levels (their highest values were about 34 μg/dl), it is not surprising to see a map of violent crime in Cuyahoga County in 2010 reflects lead poisoning 15 years ago, and earlier... and crime maps 15 years from now shall reflect lead poisonings of today!

The Case Think article goes in-depth on this observation, as well, with a special feature: DOES LEAD MAKE A CRIMINAL?

Among the many troubling effects of lead is its connection to criminal behavior.

In a 2002 study in Neurotoxicology and Teratology, Herbert Needleman, MD, whose research is widely credited with helping to end the use of leaded gasoline and paint in the U.S., reported that juvenile delinquents were four times as likely to have elevated lead levels as children their age who had not landed in court.

University of Cincinnati scientists found much the same when they followed 250 children from in utero through age 24. They reported that those with high pre- and postnatal lead exposure were more likely to be arrested after turning 18.

Needleman wrote in his study that it's possible that lead poisoning could make children impulsive, leading to attention problems and academic troubles, which are each linked to delinquency. The Cincinnati researchers, writing in PLoS Medicine in 2008, noted that lead's damaging effects on intelligence may increase the chances of arrest.

Economists also have made a connection between lead and criminality, citing statistics that show violent crime rose and fell in concert with the use of lead-containing products and that decreased childhood lead exposure in the 1970s and '80s is responsible for a 56 percent decline in violent crime in the '90s.

I express the same concerns...:

Homicides peaked throughout America from the early 1970s-1990s. Since 1994 - around 15 years after leaded paint was outlawed and "unleaded" gasoline was introduced - violent crime rates have been declining.

American homicide rate over the last century-plus
American homicide rate over the last century-plus

Where a large percentage of those 1960s-1980s lead poisoning victims have spent their adult lives is in prison, having been arrested for their "later delinquent and antisocial behaviors related to high childhood lead levels".

A PbB level of 48 μg/dl (corresponding to the maximum lead values found in teeth) would be associated with neuropsychological, behavioral and patho-physiological deficits (Lidsky and Schneider, 2003; ATSDR, 2007), and many children undoubtedly had far higher levels than the mean. For instance, in one study, there was a linear relation between childhood PbB and loss of brain volume (the highest PbB reported being about 32 μg/dl, Cecil et al., 2008), and in another study, children with PbB's at age 5 of 25 μg/dl showed a 16-point deficit in IQ (Chen et al., 2005). Again, children with tooth leads that would be equivalent to 35.5 μg/dl PbB had significantly higher difficulty with verbal and auditory processing, attention (reaction time) and dysfunctional classroom behavior (Needleman et al., 1979). Still, in one prospective study of children with PbB levels of 30–40 μg/dl from ages of about 1 through 7, smaller residual changes in IQ and other behavioral measures were found (Wasserman et al., 1997). Nevertheless, in other possibly related prospective studies, Wright et al. (2008) found over 2.5 fold increases in juvenile arrests for violent crimes for children with mean PbB of only 26 μg/dl, and Dietrich et al. (2001) found increases in later delinquent and antisocial behaviors related to high childhood lead levels (their highest values were about 34 μg/dl). Similar conclusions were also reached using environmental data on childhood exposure (Nevin, 2000, 2007). Therefore, it is likely that still greater changes would be expected in contemporary African-American adults, 25–40 years old in 2010, whose teeth showed the equivalent of a PbB of 48 μg/dl at the peak of lead uptake from leaded gasoline.

These facts make this an unsafe and undesirable place to be today, whether you are lead poisoned or not, explaining why we have so much vacant property in the region today.

Their conclusion that "in sum, leaded gasoline emission was the predominant source of lead exposure of African-American Cleveland children during the latter two-thirds of the 20th century", coupled with the realization this is not a race-issue but a socio-economic issue, harming all races and classes, gives all Americans reason for concern today... and is cause for alarm among those now living in urban communities most harmed by lead throughout the century... "still greater changes would be expected".

Perhaps the influence of Case may add to the pressure on various departments of government - locally, regionally, in Ohio and federally - to more effectively address these important issues in Northeast Ohio, by increasing local and national attention to these concerns for our children and adults impacted by lead poisoning over the decades.

This is certainly valuable research to further that cause, and a great accomplishment for Case Western Reserve University.

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