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If Walls Could Talk: What Lead Is Doing To Our Students

Peeling lead paint in a New York City apartment. Many buildings built before 1960 still have high amounts of lead.
Spencer Platt
Getty Images
Peeling lead paint in a New York City apartment. Many buildings built before 1960 still have high amounts of lead.

Every child's ability to succeed in school is influenced by lots of external factors: teacher quality, parenting, poverty, geography, to name a few. But far less attention has been paid to the power of a child's bedroom walls. Or, rather, the paint that's on them and the lead that may be in that paint.

A new study published in the Harvard Educational Review suggests that efforts to reduce kids' lead exposure have led to tangible academic gains in Massachusetts.

Researcher Jessica Wolpaw Reyes, an associate professor of economics at Amherst College, has been studying the effects of lead exposure since the 1990s. The metal piqued her interest as a grad student at Harvard, when she was pregnant with her first child and living in older, lead-rich housing.

"Lead is a very useful metal, which is kind of how we got in this situation," Reyes says. "Throughout history people keep using lead despite the fact that it has these neurotoxic effects." Those effects, in kids, can lead to reduced IQ and a whole host of behavioral problems.

Shelly / Flickr

After World War II, when Americans fell in love with the automobile, lead wasn't just in their paint and plumbing. Thanks to leaded gasoline, it was also airborne. Mother Jones reported that "lead emissions from tailpipes rose steadily from the early '40s through the early '70s, nearly quadrupling over that period."

But alarm bells were also going off. In early 1971, the EPA's first administrator, William D. Ruckelshaus, said that "an extensive body of information exists which indicates that the addition of alkyl lead to gasoline ... results in lead particles that pose a threat to public health." By the late '70s, lead-based paints had been banned for use in housing, and leaded gasoline was being phased out. In 1986, lead pipes were also banned.

Lead, Crime And Kids

By the 1990s, lead use wasn't the only thing in sharp decline. Economist Richard Nevin noticed that crime rates were also plunging, and he wondered if the two were connected. In one study, he suggested that a new generation of Americans, raised without the cognitive and developmental damage caused by lead exposure, was simply less likely to commit crimes.

Reyes herself decided to take a closer look at lead and crime. In 2007, she authored a study that found that in states where use of leaded gasoline had declined quickly, so too had crime. More recently, Reyes wondered if efforts to limit lead exposure in her home state of Massachusetts could have a similar effect on kids' academic performance.

Schools that experienced larger declines in lead also experienced larger improvements in test scores, according to the study. "If lead had stayed at 1990 levels, unsatisfactory performance statewide would have been 5 percent higher," says Reyes. "Because the Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program reduced children's lead when they were very young, those children performed substantially better when they were in elementary school."

Another headline from the report: Reyes says that "2 percent of kids that would've been failing are now passing because of the Massachusetts lead policy."

It's a bold finding. For some, perhaps too bold. Nevin's work connecting lead exposure to crime rates has its share of critics, and so does Reyes'. Still, plenty of studies suggest that at the very least, lead's effect on academic performance deserves closer scrutiny.

It's not just a question of what lead exposure can do to a child — but of which children are most likely to be exposed. A 2012 study published in the journal Clinical Pediatrics found that "a high degree of disparity exists among lead poisoned children, with children of lower socioeconomic status and minority children carrying a higher burden of undue lead exposure." According to the CDC, black children are three times more likely than white children to have elevated levels of lead in their blood.

Reyes argues that reducing lead exposure is more than just a public health issue — it's a matter of social justice. "This is a story of a policy that is uniform throughout the state," Reyes explains, "but because kids in disadvantaged circumstances also experienced higher lead levels to start with, they were in a better position to benefit."

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Jasmine Garsd is an Argentine-American journalist living in New York. She is currently NPR's Criminal Justice correspondent and the host of The Last Cup. She started her career as the co-host of Alt.Latino, an NPR show about Latin music. Throughout her reporting career she's focused extensively on women's issues and immigrant communities in America. She's currently writing a book of stories about women she's met throughout her travels.