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 Tuesday, 7 January, 2003, 00:06 GMT
Lead link to youth crime
Traffic pollution
Pollution has been linked to poor health
Low-level lead poisoning may be to blame for some cases of juvenile delinquency, claims a theory from a US scientist.

A study of young offenders passing through a court in Pennsylvania found that on average, concentrations of lead in bone were much higher than those from non-delinquent teenagers.

However, it is still unclear whether the lead build-up was the cause of the problem - or simply another result of the same poor social conditions which made offending more likely.

It is very difficult to prove a causal link between low-level lead exposure and behavioural problems

Professor Stuart Pocock, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
It has been long-established that high levels of lead poisoning are toxic, particularly to brain development in children.

However, there is still debate over the health effects of low-level lead exposure.

The researchers, based at the University of Pittsburgh, looked at 194 youths convicted in the Juvenile Court of Allegheny County in Pennsylvania.

Using a scanning technique called x-ray fluorescence spectroscopy, the concentration of lead in their leg bones was determined.

This is a good indicator of the level of exposure over a long period.

The results were compared against similarly aged youths from high schools in Pittsburgh.

The readings from the convicted youths showed 11 parts per million - compared to 1.5 parts per million in the unconvicted teenagers.

Dr Herbert Needleman, who led the study, said: "This study provides further evidence that delinquent behaviour can be caused, in part, by childhood exposure to lead.

"For years parents have been telling their paediatricians that their children's behaviour changed after they were lead poisoned, and the children became irritable, overactive and aggressive."

There are many ways in which children and adults can be exposed to lead.

Lead levels

The most common are by drinking water which has passed through old lead piping, contact with older paints which contain lead, and from vehicle fumes.

Dr Needleman said: "These results should be a call to action for legislators to protect our children by requiring landlords to not simply disclose known instances of lead paint in their properties, but to remove it."

Professor Stuart Pocock, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, carried out research in the early 1990s which suggested that low-level lead exposure was associated with a tiny drop in a child's IQ.

However, he said that the case condemning low-level lead exposure was far from proven.

He said: "It could be that youths who have a tendency towards delinquency come from a background that leads to delinquency - but which also mean increased exposure to lead.

"It is very difficult to prove a causal link between low-level lead exposure and behavioural problems."

See also:

19 Sep 00 | Health
24 Oct 00 | Health
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