Exposure to lead in drinking water increases a child’s risk of delinquency as they grow up, according to new research out of Duke and Indiana Universities.

Private drinking wells appear to be a big part of this problem. The researchers found that children drinking water from private wells before the age of six had higher levels of lead in their blood, and, as a result, were 21 percent more likely to be reported for delinquency after age 14.

These teens also had a 38 percent increased risk of having a run-in with law enforcement for incidents including misdemeanor assault and weapons offenses.

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Lead in the drinking water: increased risk of delinquency in teenagers

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The researchers analyzed a dataset covering 20 years and 13,580 children in Wake County, North Carolina. At the beginning of the study period, each child was under six years-old.

The team recorded each child’s drinking water sources, the results of blood tests for lead, and any subsequent delinquency incidents later on as a teen, which were taken from the state’s Department of Public Safety database.

The Wake County sample of nearly 14,000 children featured children living in rural areas and wealthier and newer exurban developments. It also included majority Black communities which had historically had little to no access to certain municipal services.

“Lead in drinking water is a problem whenever it occurs. In Wake County, it is not a problem for households on city water, but it sometimes is for those that are supplied by wells,” explains study co-author Philip J. Cook, Duke Sanford School of Public Policy professor emeritus.

“Well water is often a bit corrosive, and if there is lead in the pipes (as joint solder, for example) then the water leaches the lead out on its way to the faucet. City water is treated so that it will not be corrosive.

The newest well-supplied houses don’t have this issue because recent regulations don’t allow the use of lead in the pipes.  But for older residences that haven’t been re-piped, it is often a problem,” Cook continues.

In comparison to kids with community water service, children who took their water from private wells from a young age showed roughly 11 percent higher lead levels in their blood.

The Biden administration recently announced federal plans to do away with lead pipes connecting some 10 million U.S. homes to community water systems. Although the study authors welcome this move, they are also keen to stress that such actions do not stop children’s exposure to lead from private well water.

At present, 13 percent of American households rely on private wells. Domestic wells are not subject to regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act, which means they are unlikely ever to be checked for lead or treated to stop lead dissolution due to household plumbing and fixtures.

“We know that lead exposure early in life has been linked to lower IQ, reduced lifetime earnings and an increased risk for behavioral problems and criminal activity,” says lead study author Jackie MacDonald Gibson, chair of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at the IU School of Public Health-Bloomington, in a university release.

“This research highlights the need to recognize the risks to children relying on private well water and for new programs to ensure they have access to clean drinking water. Failing to do so imposes burdens not just on the affected children and their families but also on society at large,” Gibson continues.

Lead in the air: another threat to health

A massive surge in demand for lead and other harmful metal is expected in order to produce the necessary ‘environmentally friendly’ technologies to offset man-made climate change

We also recently reported on a study out of Israel which suggested that people were being exposed to lead pollution through the air.

The study showed that a variety of toxic metals, including lead, are being released during the production, use and disposal of technology such as batteries, smartphones, solar panels and wind turbines may be seeping into our bones and poisoning us.

Using a historical analysis, the researchers showed clearly that lead levels in people’s bodies track extremely closely with global lead production.

“Thus, lead pollution in humans has closely followed their rates of lead production. Simply put: the more lead we produce, the more people are likely to be absorbing it into their bodies. This has a highly toxic effect,” explained the lead researcher, Yigal Erel. 

“The close relationship between lead production and lead concentrations in humans in the past suggests that without proper regulation we will continue to experience the damaging health impacts of toxic metal contamination.” 

The researchers cautioned that increasing reliance on “green” energy solutions such as solar panels and wind turbines will drive up demand for lead and, on the basis of their findings, will increase the exposure of ordinary people to this extremely harmful heavy metal.

“This raises the concern that the current increasing use of several toxic metals (including Pb) in electronic devices and the transition to low-carbon energy production may soon be reflected in elevated concentrations of these metals in humans, predominantly in those that are not fortunate enough to live in regulated and monitored regions,” Erel adds.

“This also strengthens the case that increased use of metals should go hand in hand with augmented industrial hygiene, maximum metal recycling, and the consideration of environmental and toxicological aspects in the selection of metals for industrial use.” 

Once again it would seem that the ‘green’ future we are being promised may not be so good for us after all, and especially not for those who can least afford to protect themselves.

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