Lead Exposure Sets More Cleveland Children on a Path to Prison

By Kelley Kauffman, MSN, APRN-CNP, PMHNP-BC, Center for Health Equity Engagement Education and Research

A recent Case Western Reserve University study confirmed that “exposure to high levels of lead at a young age greatly increased the chances of Cleveland school children” experiencing school struggles, being involved in juvenile crime, and being incarcerated and/or homeless as an adult.  This 20-year longitudinal study followed thousands of students from the Cleveland Metropolitan School District and compared those who had high lead levels to those who did not.  Until now, the belief that Cleveland kids harmed by lead exposure were more likely to end up in juvenile court or prison was based upon studies conducted in other cities.  The long-term costs to individuals and society are profound, particularly for black children living in segregated neighborhoods.

Lead exposure in children has particularly negative impacts on the developing brain, including, poor impulse control, lower IQ, and other irreversible behavioral and health problems.  This study, in contrast with earlier studies, took a much longer view of the effects of lead, solidifying the need to create strategies aimed at preventing children from lead exposure.  Any “intervention after exposure cannot come close to undoing the damage”, said Claudia Coulton, lead author of the study.  However, one encouraging trend was that far fewer children tested positive for high lead levels in the second cohort than in the first, although the drop was more significant among white children.  This is consistent with a nationwide decline in lead poisoning, although Cleveland lags behind the rest of the country in reducing the number of poisoned children.

The study not only supports efforts to create sustainable policies and practices to prevent lead exposure for children in Cleveland, Cleveland City Coucilman Blaine Griffin says, “it also raises questions about what can and should be done to support young adults in the community with unacknowledged effects of being poisoned.”

Coulton said that this study supports the path the Lead Safe Cleveland coalition is taking right now and highlights the importance of not stepping off the path.