Reducing Kids’ Exposure to Lead Leads to Better School Performance, New Study Finds

A study involving Massachusetts students has suggested that in addition to much-discussed issues such as parenting, teacher quality, and poverty, schools should be focusing on a perhaps unexpected factor to improve student performance: policies reducing children’s exposure to lead.

It’s been demonstrated many times that lead exposure can lead to a reduced IQ and a wide range of behavioral problems in children.

Researcher Jessica Wolpaw Reyes, of Amherst College, put some figures on that well-known general fact in a recent study. Her conclusion: “2 percent of kids that would’ve been failing are now passing because of the Massachusetts lead policy.”

As she explained to NPR in April, her study examines the effects of the Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program. Her findings indicate that the larger the decline in lead a school experienced under that program, the greater its increase in test scores. By her calculations, if lead levels had remained at their 1990 levels, statewide unsatisfactory performance would now be 5% higher than it is.

Reyes has been studying lead exposure since the 1990s, when she was pregnant and living in lead-rich housing as a graduate student at Harvard.

“Lead is a very useful metal, which is kind of how we got in this situation,” Reyes commented to NPR regarding why lead exposure has been such a problem throughout history. “[P]eople keep using lead despite the fact that it has these neurotoxic effects.”

Although lead paint — previously a common source of exposure — is no longer used, lead is far from being eliminated from modern life. Lead is still used in construction, as a shield from radiation, in lead-acid batteries and other common items, although there are now more regulations in place that attempt to limit exposure. Lead is also a common element in alloys; it’s often added to brass, for example, in concentrations of around 2%.

As Reyes notes, better policies reducing childhood exposure to lead are not simply a health issue, but also a social justice one. That’s because children of color and those who come from low-income families are far more likely to be exposed to lead: According to data from the Centers for Disease Control, black children are three times as likely to have high levels of lead in their blood when compared to white children.

That means that addressing lead exposure issues could be one step toward reducing educational disparities, as well.

The full study has been published in the Harvard Educational Review.

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