An analysis of 17 previous studies suggests that exposure to lead in utero or during childhood might increase the risk of criminal behavior in adulthood.
However, more research is required to strengthen the understanding of this association, according to Maria Jose Talayero Schettino from George Washington University and her team.
The findings were published in the open-access journal PLOS Global Public Health.
Health Risks of Lead Exposure
Lead exposure is known to cause a range of health problems, including cardiac complications, kidney damage, immune system dysfunction, reproductive issues, and impaired neurodevelopmental function in children.
Additionally, research has identified statistical links between lead exposure and criminal behavior, but the findings have varied from study to study.
To get a clearer understanding of the existing evidence, Talayero Schettino and her colleagues conducted a systematic review of studies exploring the relationship between individual lead exposure and crime or other antisocial behaviors.
The 17 studies included in their review used different methods to measure lead exposure—via blood, bones, or teeth—and assessed the impacts of exposure at various stages of life, including in utero, early childhood, later childhood, and adolescence or adulthood.
The review revealed a broad spectrum of findings. Some studies did not identify any statistical connections between early childhood lead exposure and later delinquent behavior.
One study found a link between lead exposure and antisocial behavior, but not subsequent arrests.
However, several studies did establish connections between early childhood lead exposure and later arrests, including drug-related ones.
Using a tool called ROBINS-E, the authors evaluated each study for statistical bias, with some studies found to be more robust than others.
Preventing Lead Exposure: A Policy Priority
Despite the inconsistencies, considering the known biological impacts of lead, the review implies that individuals exposed to lead in utero or during early childhood could have a higher risk of exhibiting criminal behavior as adults.
The researchers emphasize the need for additional individual-level evidence to deepen the understanding of the associations observed in the 17 studies they reviewed.
Nevertheless, they underscore the urgent need for policy action to prevent lead exposure to protect public health and promote a safer society.
The authors conclude, “Preventing lead exposure is crucial to safeguard public health and promote a safer society for all.
Our research shows an excess risk for criminal behavior in adulthood when an individual is exposed to lead in utero or during childhood.”
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The study was published in PLOS Global Public Health.
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