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Lead Poisoning Linked With Higher Crime Rates, Lower Test Scores

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Welcome to my new blog: Toxic Tracks. Here, I'll be posting short bits of daily news and commentary on environmental health topics. Please send along any thoughts or feedback via email or Twitter.

Last month's tragedy in Newtown, Conn. has generated widespread debate over guns, violent video games and, most recently, the treatment of the mentally ill. Missing from this conversation, however, is one potentially key smoking gun: lead poisoning.

On Wednesday morning, BBC Today interviewed Howard Mielke of Tulane University about his research into a possible link between violent crime and exposure to the toxic heavy metal. Mielke's team recently mapped lead levels in the environment around New Orleans. The result was some surprising, and valuable, new tools.

"The police department is using the maps because they find them very predictive of where the highest crime rates are being found in the city," he said.

The lead maps also appear to predict differences in academic achievement, even after ruling out poverty and other related factors. Mielke's finding is just one piece a growing body of evidence that links low-level lead exposures to poor school performance. A new study out of Wisconsin this week, for example, has found that fourth graders who tested positive for lead exposure scored worse than their classmates on the state's standardized tests.

We've long known that lead can damage the developing brain, permanently altering IQ scores and behavior. We've also known that young children, the most vulnerable to the neurotoxic effects, can be exposed through dust and soil contaminated by lead's legacy in house paints and gasoline. Turns out, as I reported in December, increased levels of lead contamination is also resulting from the widespread use of guns in America.

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