Children who are exposed to lead are nearly three times more likely to be suspended from school by the fourth grade than children who are not exposed, according to a new study.
“Students who are suspended from school are at greater risk of dropping out, twice as likely to use tobacco, and more likely to engage in violent behavior later in life,” said first author Michael Amato, a doctoral candidate in psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“Our study found that children exposed to lead were more than twice as likely to be suspended in the fourth grade, which means that lead may be more responsible for school discipline problems than many people realize.”
The researchers noted that African-American students throughout the U.S. are three times more likely to be suspended than white students. The same gap was found for students in Wisconsin — but 23 percent of the disparity was explained by differences in rates of lead exposure, according to the researchers.
“We knew that lead exposure decreases children’s abilities to control their attention and behavior, but we were still surprised that exposed children were so much more likely to be suspended,” said Sheryl Magzamen, a public health researcher who also worked on the study. She is now an assistant professor at the University of Oklahoma.
For the study, researchers the cross-referenced medical data of nearly 4,000 children exposed to lead with fourth grade disciplinary records in the Milwaukee school district. They found that children who had been exposed to lead were nearly three times more likely to be suspended in the fourth grade than children who had not been exposed, even after controlling for income, race, ethnicity, and gender.
The researchers noted that animal experiments have proven that lead exposure causes decreased attention and decreased control over behavior when subjects are startled or touched. That led to the hypothesis that if exposed children were affected the same way, they would be more likely to engage in disruptive classroom behaviors that could result in suspension. The results of the study supported that hypothesis, the researchers said.
“Children exposed to lead don’t get a fair start and it affects them for their whole lives,” added study coauthor Colleen Moore, a UW-Madison psychology professor emerita.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, African-American children are more than twice as likely as whites to have elevated lead levels. The reason is that African-American children are more likely to live in lower-income neighborhoods and rental housing where lead remains in the buildings and soil, a common situation in major American cities, according to CDC officials.
Moore notes that in the city of Milwaukee, lead abatement orders are active in more than 100 residential properties.
“It would be great to see more landlords get on board to make their housing lead-safe,” she said. “Future generations depend on it.”
“Everyone agrees there is a big problem with disparities in education,” added Amato. “This study shows that lead is a part of the problem. There is only one way to reduce lead’s harmful effects, and that is to remove it from the environments where children live and play.”
The study will be published in the September 2013 issue of Environmental Research.
Source: University of Wisconsin-Madison