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Lead Paint Poisoning
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Delinquency Tied To Lead Exposure

Jan 6, 2002 | Pittsburgh Tribune Review

"It represents a new phase in the causality of lead," said Dr. Herbert Needleman, professor of child psychiatry and pediatrics who has spent many years researching the effects of lead on children.

He found that lead levels were 7.3 times higher in the shin bones of youths convicted in Juvenile Court of Allegheny County than they were in non-delinquent high school students in Pittsburgh.

Those most at risk in Allegheny County are white children in low-income families, he said. After eliminating other risk factors for delinquency, such as race and family economic status, Needleman said he concluded children exposed to lead are four times as likely to become delinquents.

The biggest cause of lead poisoning now is lead-based paint used in homes built before 1978, he said. That accounts for 90 percent of the homes in Allegheny County, according to Lead Safe Pittsburgh, a coalition of more than 60 groups that works to prevent lead poisoning.

"It means this is a preventable problem that is not being prevented," Needleman said.

Needleman's previous study linking lead exposure to lower IQ scores, shorter attention spans and reduced language skills prompted nationwide bans on lead in paint, gasoline, and food and beverage cans.

Needleman's most recent study of 194 convicted youths and 146 high school students was done in 1998, but disclosed for the first time today in the scientific journal Neurotoxicology and Teratology.

His 1996 study of 300 boys in the Pittsburgh Public Schools found that those with relatively high levels of lead in their bones were more likely to be bullies, vandals, truants or shoplifters, or display other antisocial behaviors.

Dr. Bruce Dixon, county health director, praised Needleman's continuing work and said, if substantiated, his recent findings could lead to "changes in how we deal with young people."

Needleman said lead poisoning "is a disease that is completely preventable. You could take it out of the disease books and put it in the history books. We know where lead is. We know how to get rid of it. All it takes is money and effort."

He said his studies verify what mothers have long been telling doctors — that their children became more aggressive, irritable and overactive after having suffered lead poisoning.

Darcia McDonald, 38, of the North Side, recently learned her 23-month-old son, Joshua, had lead poisoning that was traced to flaking lead-based paint beneath peeling kitchen wallpaper.

A routine blood test last October found Joshua had a high level of lead.

"I would have never known he had a problem," McDonald said.

Because Joshua is at an age where he is going through many developmental changes, slight colds are normal and the occasional tantrum is to be expected, his mother did not suspect a problem.

"Any parent needs to be educated about lead poisoning because it is a silent killer," she said. "It works on that child's body, and you don't even know it."

Joshua did not need any treatment, but McDonald's kitchen did.

The lead-based paint was removed from her home, which is about 70 years old, and her kitchen was refinished by CLEARCorps/Pittsburgh, a nonprofit organization that works to reduce the risks of lead poisoning to children.

McDonald said she is not concerned about any lasting effects on her son's health because the problem was detected early, the lead levels in his blood are monitored frequently, and he has not shown any developmental problems.

Subtle symptoms

Lead poisoning often occurs with no obvious symptoms, so it can go unnoticed or is only caught during a routine blood screening. Symptoms of chronic lead poisoning include:

Extreme irritability
Loss of appetite

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