Study draws connection between lead exposure and gun violence

A recent study from UW-Milwaukee researchers draws a connection between exposure to lead in early life and later gun violence.

After accounting for various factors such as sex, race and economic status, study authors found that higher levels of blood lead levels were associated with increased risks of both perpetrating and becoming the victim of violence. 

Importantly, the likelihood of experiencing violence as a victim or perpetrator increased in each higher category of blood lead, the study shows. 

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

The study relied on data from nearly 90,000 Milwaukee residents born in the city between June 1986 and December 2003 who had their blood tested before age 6. It was performed at the university’s Joseph J. Zilber School of Public Health. 

Emer says this was the first study to hone in on this link between childhood lead exposure and gun violence later in life.  

Milwaukee’s health department recommends all children get at least three blood lead tests before age 3. And the state Department of Health Services recommends universal testing for all children living in Milwaukee and Racine — particularly for those living in older houses. 

Numbers from the city shows the testing rate has largely increased since the mid-1990s, while the number of children tested with elevated blood levels has been on a steady decline over the same period. 

Study authors said high levels of childhood lead exposure may have “substantially contributed” to adult firearm violence in Milwaukee. They reference other research showing lead exposure has previously been connected to impaired decision making and increased impulsiveness — “traits that may influence criminal behavior.” 

“While we cannot definitively conclude causality, the possibility that over half of firearm violence among this sample might be due to lead exposure suggests a potential importance of lead exposure reduction in firearm violence prevention efforts,” they wrote. 

The study was published last week in the journal Environmental Research. 
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