Lead Poisoning Linked to Crime

Lead Poisoning Linked to Crime
By: Mark Beckford

June 22, 2008

Professor Gerald Lalor of the University of the West Indies is calling for the health authorities in Jamaica to structure a programme which ensures the proper disposal of lead acid from batteries. This comes in the wake of a new study in the United States which found evidence that elevated prenatal and postnatal blood-lead concentrations are associated with higher rates of criminal arrest in adulthood.

While not new, the trade in used batteries has become more lucrative in the last two years, after the increase in demand for lead on the world market which led to increases of 120 per cent, leading to more backyard smelters.

This smelting can lead to the poisoning of anyone who comes in contact with the substance.

"The real cause of such lead poison there today is from batteries used previously. Quite recently, we also had lead in gasolene. What is really needed is an agreed waste disposal thing. first, how you get rid of the acid, and second, just making sure nobody takes the acid and just smelt it down," said Lalor, who has done extensive work on lead poisoning.

Exported properly

"What is important is the thing should come in and that it is exported properly. The Ministry of Environment had a thing called the used batteries project ... that is about three years ago but, as so often happens in Jamaica, once the person pushing it (is gone) it just flops down."

Neil Crum-Ewing, general manager of Tropical Batteries, one of the major exporters of used batteries in Jamaica, is backing Professor Lalor's call.

"We always support any programme that is structured and conducive to getting the product out and ensuring that it is rewarding for those who are involved in it."

Crum-Ewing's company exports lead to an overseas facility which smelts the product. He told The Sunday Gleaner that smelting is not recommended to be done on a small scale, as the equipment to do it properly is very expensive and the side effects on health is devastating.

He is encouraging those involved in it on a small scale to sell their batteries to those involved on a larger scale.

According to the website www.sciencedaily.com, long-term data from a childhood lead study in Cincinnati, Ohio, conducted by Kim Dietrich, PhD, and his team have determined that elevated prenatal and postnatal blood-lead concentrations are associated with higher rates of criminal arrest in adulthood.

"Previous studies either relied on indirect measures of exposure or failed to follow subjects into adulthood to examine the relationship between lead exposure and criminal activity in young adults," explains Dietrich, principal investigator of the study and professor of environmental health at University of Cincinnati.

"We have monitored this specific sub-segment of children who were exposed to lead both in the womb and as young children for nearly 30 years," he adds. "We have a complete record of the neurological, behavioural and developmental patterns to draw a clear association between early-life exposure to lead and adult criminal activity."

Long-term effects

Led by Dietrich, researchers recruited pregnant women living in Cincinnati neighbourhoods with a higher concentration of older, lead-contaminated housing. Recruitment took place at four prenatal clinics between 1979 and 1984. Dietrich's team has monitored this population group since birth to assess the long-term health effects of early-life lead exposure.

Of the original 376 newborns recruited, 250 were identified for the current study. Researchers measured blood-lead levels during pregnancy, and then at regular intervals until the children were six years old, to calculate cumulative lead exposure.

Blood-lead level data was then correlated with public criminal arrest records from a search of Hamilton County, Ohio, criminal justice records.

These records provided information about the nature and extent of arrests and were coded by category: violent, property, drugs, fraud, obstruction of justice, serious motor vehicle, disorderly conduct and other offences.

Researchers found that individuals with increased blood-lead levels before birth and during early childhood had higher rates of arrest - for both violent and total crimes - than the rest of the study population after age 18.

Children, according to research, are at greatest risk because they play more in the soils, are closer to and spend more time on the ground, and are more likely to eat soil. Children absorb lead 10 times more effectively than adults, and the developing brain is at great risk.

Lead poisoning in children prevents the brain and nervous system from developing properly. This can lead to reduced IQs, attention deficit problems, and actions prone to misbehaviour.

In 2004, the National Safety Council reported that a minimum of 400,000 children under the age of six had significant levels of lead in their blood.

No understanding

This limited development then leads to children growing up without understanding the consequences of their actions.

"Over the years, it is becoming clearer and clearer that a lot of crime in other countries might be related to lead in babyhood, and not all that very high levels of lead either," Professor Lalor said.

Using the United States as an example, Professor Lalor says the decline in crime rates across the nation has been linked to the removal of lead from certain products in the United States in the 1970s and '80s.

Lalor, who is director general of the International Centre for Environ-mental and Nuclear Sciences, said this study proves useful as Jamaica seeks to find answers in solving the puzzle of crime and violence.

Lalor believes the application of different techniques can help to fight crime and, as such, calls for more research on the subject area as well as a public health follow-up mechanism to help individuals who may have been poisoned by lead, and for more facilities which tests lead in blood.

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