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Lead Exposure May Help Drive Violent Youth Crime

Government must do more to reduce environmental toxin, expert says

FRIDAY, Feb. 18, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- Lead exposure may be a major factor behind violent crimes committed by young people, and the U.S. government must do more to remove lead from the environment, according to one leading expert.

"When environmental lead finds its way into the developing brain, it disturbs neural mechanisms responsible for regulation of impulse. That can lead to antisocial and criminal behavior. The government needs to do more to eliminate sources of lead in the environment," said Dr. Herbert L. Needleman, a professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, and one of the first researchers to identify cognitive effects in children exposed to lead.

Needleman spoke Feb. 19 at the American Academy for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Washington, D.C.

According to experts at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, people can be exposed to lead through drinking water, air, food, contaminated soil and through dust and peeling or flaking paint. Until the 1970s, lead was used in gasoline, paint and older water pipes, and much of that lead is still present in the environment today.

A 1996 study conducted by University of Pittsburgh researchers found that children with the highest concentrations of lead also displayed the highest levels of aggression and delinquency on standard behavioral tests.

"The brain, particularly the frontal lobes, are important in the regulation of behavior," Needleman said in a prepared statement. "Exposure to lead, at doses below those which bring children to medical attention, is associated with increased aggression, disturbed attention and delinquency. A meaningful strategy to reduce crime is to eliminate lead from the environment of children."

More information

The U.S. National Center for Environmental Health has more about lead.

SOURCE: University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, news release, Feb. 18, 2005
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