Thursday, May 29, 2008

Crime Prevention Could Get Brainy

A new study from the University of Cincinnati strengthens the evidence that lead exposure is linked to criminal behavior, and could refocus the spotlight on lead and juvenile crime in Milwaukee. The first study to follow lead-exposed children from before birth into adulthood, it shows that even relatively low levels of lead permanently damage the brain. The least-contaminated children in the study, with levels near average for U.S. children, still showed a link between criminal behavior and lead exposure.

Lead increases the very behaviors that can predict aggressive and violent behavior in children: distractibility, impulsiveness, restlessness, and a shortened attention span. Researchers found that every 5-microgram-per-deciliter increase in blood lead levels at age 6 was accompanied by a 50% increase in the incidence of violent crimes later in life. A related study found that those with the highest blood levels of lead during childhood had brains that were 1.2% smaller than normal.

Locally, Milwaukee has a nasty history with lead. A 2005 Journal Sentinel story reported the incidence of childhood lead poisoning in Milwaukee at 9.8%, six times the national average of 1.6%. In the past decade, an estimated 19,000 Milwaukee children younger than six have tested positive for elevated lead levels. Milwaukee’s high rates are attributed to the city’s older housing stock, which contains lead-based paint. A map of lead in local housing darkens the city’s poorest neighborhoods with black dots indicating over 8,000 lead-poisoned children per dot. Progress has been made in Milwaukee, which has a variety of lead abatement efforts. The number of poisoned children under age 6 dropped from a height of 31.9% to 9.8% between 1997 and 2004.

The Cincinnati study indicates that lead abatement services and screenings are an investment with large long-term payoffs. Funding lead abatement has the potential to save money in the long-run on expensive juvenile detention and special education services, and could potentially keep more people off welfare and increase their incomes over a lifetime.

Such long-term investment arguments parallel evidence recently presented by local police and sheriffs as well as the national group Fight Crime Invest in Kids that high-quality early childhood education leads to crime reduction (and cost savings) in the long-run due to positive influences on still-developing brain neurology. The future of crime prevention might include neurologists, preschool teachers and lead abatement specialists working together, while economists chart the return on investment.

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