Study finds link between childhood exposure to lead and gun violence

A new study from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee shows a link between childhood exposure to lead and later gun violence. These results suggest even greater urgency to tackling childhood lead exposure and addressing the environmental injustice of vulnerable children experiencing a toxic exposure that they cannot control.

“This is the first study to look specifically at the link between childhood lead exposure and gun violence,” said Lindsay Emer, the primary author. “Effective lead exposure prevention strategies already exist, and we know that there is no safe level of lead. This research provides further urgency to fully support these efforts with the resources that are needed.”

The study done at UWM’s Joseph J. Zilber School of Public Health used public health, education and criminal justice datasets covering more than 89,000 people born in Milwaukee between June 1, 1986, and December 31, 2003, with a valid blood lead test before they were 6 years old.

Researchers found that as childhood blood lead levels increased, the risk for becoming a perpetrator or victim of gun violence increased, even after controlling for temporal trends, gender, race and neighborhood socioeconomic status.

The link was so strong that about half of gun violence perpetration and victimization was attributable to blood lead levels ≥ 5 µg/dL (the current reference level for elevated lead). That means that in Milwaukee, during a period of high lead exposures, childhood blood lead levels may have substantially contributed to adult gun violence, although the study was not able to definitively prove cause and effect.

The findings are bolstered by known links between lead exposure and the brain, especially through impairing future decision-making and increasing impulsiveness, traits that may influence criminal behavior.

The study will be published in Environmental Research and can be found online. A pre-proof of the article can be downloaded here.

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