Pb on the Brain


I’ve got lead on my mind. Lead the element, not the verb; the toxic metal that used to grace every gas tank and paint can in this grand country of ours. For the most part we’ve stopped spewing lead into our environment, but the lead of prior generations doesn’t go away. It lingers on the walls and windows of older buildings, on floors as dust, and in the soil. These days it lingers in my thoughts as well.

I started worrying about lead when my daughter became a toddler and began putting everything in her mouth. I fretted more when I learned that lead is far more damaging to young children than was previously thought. Even a tiny amount of it can irreversibly harm a child’s developing brain, leading to lower IQs, attention problems and behavioral disorders. You may never even see the culprit; lead can sit around as microscopic dust, waiting to be inhaled or sucked off of an infant’s fingers.

Public health programs use blood lead levels (BLLs) to evaluate the amount of lead in a child’s system and decide whether to take preventative or medical action. In the 1960s, only BLLs above 60 μg/dL were considered toxic in children. That number has been creeping downward ever since. In 1985 the CDC’s stated blood lead level of concern became 25 μg/dL and in 1991 it went down to 10. But last year the CDC moved the cutoff down to 5 μg/dL and got rid of the term “level of concern.” That’s because scientists now believe that any amount of lead is toxic. In fact, it seems as if lead’s neurotoxic effects are most potent at BLLs below 5 μg/dL. In other words, a disproportionately large amount of the brain damage occurs at the lowest doses. Recent studies have shown subtle intellectual impairments in kids with BLLs as low as 2 μg/dL (which is roughly the mean BLL of American preschoolers today). All great reasons for parents to worry about even tiny exposures to lead, no?

Yes. Absolutely. Parents never want to handicap their children, even if only by an IQ point or two. But here’s what’s crazy: nearly every American in their fifties, forties, or late-thirties today would have clocked in well over the current CDC’s cutoff when they were little. The average BLL of American preschoolers in the late ‘70s was 15 μg/dL – and 88% had BLLs greater than 10 μg/dL.

These stats made me wonder if whole generations of Americans are cognitively and behaviorally impaired from lead poisoning as children. Have we been blaming our intellectually underwhelming workforce on a mismanaged education system, cultural complacency, or the rise of television and video games when we should have been blaming a toxic metal element?

I was sure I wasn’t the first person to wonder about the upshot of poisoning generations of Americans. And lo and behold, a quick Google search led me to this brilliant article on Mother Jones from January. The piece chronicles a rise in urban crime that began in the ‘60s and fell off precipitously in the early-to-mid ‘90s nationwide. The author, Kevin Drum, walks readers through very real evidence that lead fumes from leaded gasoline were a major cause of the rise in crime (and that increased regulation restricting lead in gasoline could be credited for the sudden drop off.)

The idea certainly sounds far-fetched: generations of city-dwellers were more prone to violence as adults because they breathed high levels of lead fumes when they were kids. It doesn’t seem possible. But when you put the pieces together it’s hard to imagine any other outcome. We know that children of the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s had BLLs high enough to cause irreversible IQ deficits and behavioral problems (of which aggression and impulse control are particularly common). Why is it so hard to imagine that more of these children behaved violently when they became adults?

In the end, this terrible human experiment in mass poisoning has left me pondering two particular questions. First, what does it mean for generations of children to be, in a sense, retroactively damaged by lead? At the time, our levels were considered harmless, but now we know better. Does knowing now, at this point, explain anything about recent history and current events? Does it explain the remarkable intransigence of certain politicians or the bellicosity of certain talk show hosts, athletes, or drivers with a road rage problem? Aside from the crime wave, what other sweeping societal trends might be credited to the poisoning of children past? How might history have played out differently if we had all been in our right minds?

Finally, I’ve been thinking a lot about the leads and asbestoses and thalidomides of today. Pesticides? Bisphenol A? Flame retardants? What is my daughter licking off of those toys of hers and how is it going to harm her twenty years down the line? This is not just a question for parents. Think crime waves. Think lost productivity and innovation. Today’s children grow up to be tomorrow’s adults. Someday when we are old and convalescing they’ll take the reigns of our society and drive it heaven-knows-where. That makes child health and safety an issue for us all. We may never even know how much we stand to lose.


Photo credit: Zara Evens

2 responses

  1. Such an important topic. The Mother Jones article shocked me when it came out, yet the news is, in a way, heartening. Sad for lost lives and potential, but an important wake-up call and good to see that on lead, at least, we are moving in the right direction. Thanks for the well-written, interesting article.

    • Thanks for the comment, Kathy! It’s true, there are multiple ways to look at the lead saga in our nation’s history; it was first a public health tragedy and more recently an impressive if incomplete public health triumph. I just hope in the future we’ll get better at preventing the tragedy part in the first place.

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