Exposure to lead in drinking water as a child linked to teenage delinquency

DURHAM, N.C. — When people hear the words “teenage delinquency” and “drinking” in the same sentence, it’s natural to assume the topic involves alcohol. Surprisingly, however, researchers from Duke University and Indiana University report that exposure to lead in drinking water from a young age can increase the risk of delinquent behavior as a teen.

It appears private drinking wells are a big part of this problem. The research finds that children drinking water from private wells before the age of six had higher levels of lead in their blood. Consequently, those same adolescents were 21 percent more likely to be reported for delinquency after age 14. Similarly, such teens had a 38 percent increased risk of having a run-in with law enforcement for incidents including misdemeanor assault and weapons offenses.

“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 drinking water is a problem whenever it occurs’

Researchers analyzed a dataset covering 20 years and 13,580 children for this project. At the start, each child was younger than six years-old. The team recorded each child’s drinking water sources, as well as any subsequent delinquency incidents later on as a teen. The children, from Wake County, North Carolina, also had their blood tested for lead between 1998 and 2011. Meanwhile, researchers collected juvenile delinquency reports from the state’s Department of Public Safety database.

The Wake County sample featured children living in rural areas, wealthier and newer exurban developments, and majority Black communities historically neglected when it comes to 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,” he continues.

In comparison to kids with community water service, children relying on 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. While this is a positive first step, study authors stress such actions do not stop children’s exposure to lead from private well water. As of now, 13 percent of American households rely on private wells. Such domestic wells are not subject to regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act, meaning these wells are rarely (if ever) checked for lead or treated to stop lead dissolution due to household plumbing and fixtures.

So, how can children avoid lead exposure?

Study authors believe both neighborhoods relying on private wells and unincorporated border cities and towns are “good candidates” for community water service extensions. Why? Such locations are quite close to existing infrastructure. Communities located farther away could potentially receive household water filters at a subsidized price depending on household income.

“This research confirms the urgent need to prevent early-life exposure to lead in drinking water,” Gibson adds. “Technology to solve this problem is readily available, and putting it in place is a matter of political will and should be part of upgrading infrastructure in the U.S.”

“Ours is not the first study to find that children who grow up with lead in their water supply are more likely to get involved in criminal activity. But by connecting the problem to wells in Wake County, our results provide a clear guide for what needs to be done locally,” Cook concludes.

The study is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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