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Lead Linked to School Suspensions

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

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Add major school discipline problems early in life to the long list of dangers already associated with lead exposure, a new University of Wisconsin-Madison study warns.

"Children who are exposed to lead are nearly three times more likely to be suspended from school by the fourth grade than children who are not exposed," according to a research announcement by the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies.

The work was underwritten by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Wisconsin Partnership Program Education and Research Committee.

Lead paint on school
Best of New Orleans and Uptown Messenger / Cheryl Gerber

Lead exposure in old schools and housing may account for some of the well-documented racial and economic gaps in learning, the team said.

School suspension, especially at a young age, can lead to severe problems later in life, the team says.

Focus on Milwaukee

In the study, researchers cross-referenced medical data of nearly 4,000 children exposed to lead with fourth-grade disciplinary records in the Milwaukee school district.

They found that children who had been exposed to lead were nearly three times more likely to be suspended in the fourth grade than children who had not been exposed, even after controlling for income, race/ethnicity, and gender. The research will be published in September in Environmental Research.

"We knew that lead exposure decreases children's abilities to control their attention and behavior, but we were still surprised that exposed children were so much more likely to be suspended," said Sheryl Magzamen, a public health researcher who worked on the study. Magzamen is now an assistant professor at the University of Oklahoma.

Experiments on animals prove that lead exposure causes decreased attention and control over behavior when subjects are startled or touched, the institute said.

Mike D'Amato - UW-M
University of Wisconsin

Lead exposure "may be more responsible for school discipline problems than many people realize," says Michael D'Amato.

"The study team reasoned that if exposed children were affected the same way, they would be more likely to engage in disruptive classroom behaviors that could result in suspension," the announcement said. "The results of the study supported that hypothesis."

Racial Differences

Nationally, the researchers say, African-American students are three times more likely than white students to be suspended. The team said that it found the same discipline gap in the Wisconsin study, but that 23 percent of the disparity was explained by differences in rates of lead exposure.

Previous studies have documented disparities in school discipline, but few have specified underlying factors, the institute reported.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, African-American children are more than twice as likely as whites to have elevated lead levels. That's because African-American children are more likely to live in lower-income neighborhoods and rental housing where lead remains in the buildings and soil, the researchers say.

In the city of Milwaukee, lead abatement orders are currently active in more than 100 residential properties, noted study coauthor Colleen Moore, a UW-Madison psychology professor emerita affiliated with the Nelson Institute.

Sheryl Magzamen
University of Wisconsin

Despite lead's well-known effects on concentration and self-control, the team was still surprised at the high rate of suspensions, said Sheryl Magzamen.

"It would be great to see more landlords get on board to make their housing lead-safe," she said. "Future generations depend on it."

What's at Risk

The long-term consequences of early school problems can be severe, the researchers said.

"Students who are suspended from school are at greater risk of dropping out, twice as likely to use tobacco, and more likely to engage in violent behavior later in life," said first author Michael Amato, a doctoral candidate in psychology.

"Our study found that children exposed to lead were more than twice as likely to be suspended in the fourth grade, which means that lead may be more responsible for school discipline problems than many people realize."

Added Moore: "Children exposed to lead don't get a fair start, and it affects them for their whole lives."

Huge racial and economic disparities in educational performance have been well documented, noted Amato.

"This study shows that lead is a part of the problem," he said. "There is only one way to reduce lead's harmful effects, and that is to remove it from the environments where children live and play."

   

Tagged categories: Health and safety; Lead; Lead paint abatement; Research; Schools

Comment from wayne vutech, (8/27/2013, 7:54 AM)

How was this exposure determined? Was this from walking past a building or toy with lead based paint applied to the item, was it from food or eating peeling paint?


Comment from Richard Hogue, (8/27/2013, 9:54 AM)

I suspect flawed research. If exposure to lead paint causes these problems, then all of us exposed to lead prior to the EPA ban would have been juvenile delinquents. I suspect other socio-economic factors are in play here.


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