Prevent Crime: Protect children from lead poisoning | Opinion
More than 9,000 young children suffer from lead poisoning each year in Pennsylvania
(Pa. Partnerships for Children photo)
By Kevin R. Steele and Greg Rowe
Danger lurks in many Pennsylvania homes built before 1978: lead. The presence of lead negatively affects our children’s physical and behavioral health.
Indeed, more than 9,000 young children suffer from lead poisoning each year in Pennsylvania. Even though 40 years have passed since lead paint was banned, lead still remains in older homes. It is an insidious threat that too often goes unnoticed and unaddressed in children’s living environments.
This problem is neither theoretical nor minimal. Consider that about 70 percent of our state’s housing stock was built before 1978, when lead paint was banned.
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Yet less than 20 percent of young children in Pennsylvania are screened for lead poisoning, a rate that is almost certainly undercounting the number of children who are poisoned each year. The primary means of lead poisoning is by young children ingesting lead-based paint chips or inhaling lead paint dust.
Preventing lead poisoning will improve public safety and, therefore, is important to the law enforcement. Research shows that lead exposure at a young age can cause multiple lifelong negative health and behavioral effects, including learning disabilities, slowed growth and development, problems with impulse control, and damage to the brain and nervous system. The result, sometimes referred to as the “lead-crime hypothesis,” is an increased probability that the individual may commit future juvenile and adult crime.
A recent report by the anti-crime organization Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, compiles many of the research findings that show the impact of lead exposure long after early childhood. Children in one study who were exposed to lead in early childhood committed, on average, nearly five more delinquent acts as adolescents than their peers who were not exposed to lead as children.
Another study linked preschool blood lead levels with data on juvenile detention rates for 120,000 children born in Rhode Island between 1990 and 2004. The researchers found that as lead levels increased, so did rates of suspension from school and juvenile incarceration.
Children in one study who were exposed to lead in early childhood committed, on average, nearly five more delinquent acts as adolescents than their peers who were not exposed to lead as children.
Another long-term study of the relationship between lead exposure and crime found that populations that had lead in their drinking water had higher homicide rates after twenty years, compared to areas where lead was not present in drinking water.
These studies suggest that identifying children at risk for lead poisoning early and removing the lead from their environment is one of the smartest investments that we can make to ensure our children are healthy and not at increased risk of being involved in the criminal justice system.
Such investments make sense for taxpayers, too. It is estimated that the total cost of the lifetime economic burden of childhood lead exposure in Pennsylvania is $3.1 billion. This includes the costs of increased healthcare, increased spending on education, reduced lifetime productivity and premature mortality. The direct costs of crime due to lead exposure nationally is estimated to be over $1.7 billion.
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It is critical that more children are tested for lead to determine those homes that are in need of remediation and so that more children with elevated blood lead levels can be identified and receive the early intervention help they and their families need.
The General Assembly currently is considering legislation to require Pennsylvania health care providers to make reasonable efforts to ensure that all kids are screened for lead. The legislation also requires health insurers to cover such testing and instructs the state Department of Heath to conduct a public information campaign on the dangers of lead poisoning and the importance of testing.
By ensuring that more Pennsylvania children are tested, we can protect them from further damage due to lead exposure and finally end this tragic poisoning that is entirely preventable.
For more information about testing children and homes for lead, call the Pennsylvania Department of Health’s Lead Information Line at 1-800-440-LEAD and see resources on the Pennsylvania Lead-Free Promise Project website at www.paleadfree.org.
Kevin R. Steele is the elected district attorney of Montgomery County and the president of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association. Greg Rowe is the executive director of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association.
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