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Biology 202, Spring 2005
First Web Papers
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Social Implications of Lead Poisoning in Children

Jenna Rosania

For decades, lead has been known to be a hazardous toxicant, especially for children. The children who are usually exposed to lead, particularly in this age of better understanding about the effects lead can have on neurological development, tend to live in older homes and come from poorer families who cannot afford to replace the two most common sources of lead to children, lead paint and lead plumbing ( Although lead can affect several areas of the body, the neurological damage is often quite severe for individuals exposed to even slight amounts of lead during brain development. This damage often results in behavioral problems, reasoning and attention deficits, and low IQ and mental retardation, conditions that occasionally lead to deviant behavior. In these areas where lead exposure is so common and unavoidable due to the impoverished state of the inhabitants, the lead exposure of the children that develop neurological deficits and subsequently exhibit deviant behavior must be considered when determining their degree of culpability for a crime. If the physical state and composition of the brain determine the behavior of an individual, a brain damaged by lead poisoning can be the source of socially abnormal behavior.

Lead is referred to as xenobiotic, meaning it is a foreign substance with no useful role in human physiology, toxic even in minute quantities. Rather than breaking down to be eliminated as a waste product, lead accumulates in the body's bones and tissues because the body recognizes it as if it were calcium. It may be absorbed from the gastrointestinal tract or through the respiratory system. Lead exposure can result in low sperm counts in men and can increase the risk of miscarriage or still birth among women. It damages the kidneys and gastrointestinal tract, and it can lead to a host of neurological problems including decreased cognitive abilities and increased behavior problems in children (Konopka, 2003). The trigger level for lead in children, or the level at which it is deemed harmful, has been lowered over the decades and currently stands at 10g/dL, although recent studies suggest that adverse health effects exist in children at blood lead levels less than 10 g/dL (Canfield et al., 2003).

The most common source of exposure to lead in the household is dust from lead paint, commonly used before 1978 when the federal government banned lead as an additive to paint used for housing (CDC). Lead may also leach into water that travels through antiquated lead pipes, particularly if the water flowing through the pipes is heated, acidic, or treated with chloramines, an alternative anti-bacterial additive to chlorine. Other common sources of exposure outside the home are remnants of used leaded fuel or other lead products in soil, older painted toys, furniture, or jewelry, food and liquids stored in lead crystal or lead-glazed pottery or porcelain, lead particles released into the air from lead smelters and cosmetics or folk remedies that contain lead, such as "greta" and "azarcon" used to treat upset stomachs (EPA).

Although lead can cause harm to children and adults alike, the most seriously deleterious effects of lead poisoning are experienced by children still developing mentally and physically. Children are more likely to be exposed to lead because are more likely to be exposed to certain toxins because they play outdoors. They are shorter than adults, which means they can breathe dust, soil, and vapors close to the ground. Children are smaller than adults, therefore childhood exposure results in higher doses of chemicals per body weight (CDC). They are more likely to be irrevocably damaged by lead poisoning because lead causes damage to the nerve cells of the brain while the brain is still developing. The dendrites of nerve cells in developing brains are cut short by lead, thereby reducing the connections between axons among adjacent neurons. Dendrites are most plentiful during the early years of childhood, especially between the ages of 1 and 5, and thin naturally with age. Thus it is crucial for healthy development to establish as many connections between neurons in the brain as possible through education and stimulation between the ages of 1 and 5. When children are exposed to lead which limits the connections being made during this important developmental period, the brain is irrevocably disadvantaged, resulting in decreased amounts of gray matter ( Chelation therapy, which involves reducing the lead concentrations in the bloodstream by orally administering succimer, or injecting ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (EDTA), has been shown to be ineffective at increasing already damaged neurons and increasing diminished IQ (Rogan et al., 2001). Therefore, even when individuals undergo treatment during childhood, the damaged areas cannot be recovered.

The neurological damage resulting from exposure to lead can result in abnormal behavior, exhibited through increased irritability and violence, learning disabilities, mental retardation, and other functional difficulties. The social effects of these abnormal behaviors through teasing, peer isolation, falling behind in school, drug abuse, domestic abuse, and a lack of understanding about the basis of an individual's impairments may also compound the neurological damage, resulting in psychological trauma, which studies show can cause other types of brain damage. (Rosen, 2001) All these conditions have been known to result in an individual's inability to function in society or possess adaptive skills. Inability to function in society often results in deviancy of various kinds, and at times the deviancy that is a symptom of an individual's neurological damage is so seriously a breach of the mores of social structure that it is viewed by our legal system as criminal.

In a landmark capital trial, Atkins v. Virginia, ruled in 2002, the defendant was given life without parole rather than the death sentence because it was proved he was mentally retarded. His lawyer argued that to put to death someone who had obvious mental deficits and an inability to cope in society was against the eighth amendment guaranteeing no use of cruel and unusual punishment as well as society's standards of decency:

Clinical definitions of mental retardation require not only subaverage intellectual functioning, but also significant limitations in adaptive skills. Mentally retarded persons frequently know the difference between right and wrong and are competent to stand trial, but, by definition, they have diminished capacities to understand and process information, to communicate, to abstract from mistakes and learn from experience, to engage in logical reasoning, to control impulses, and to understand others' reactions. Their deficiencies do not warrant an exemption from criminal sanctions, but diminish their personal culpability. (536 U.S. 304, 122 S.Ct. 2242)

In light of the distinction between sanctioning criminality and administering justice fairly by acknowledging an individual's culpability, it is necessary to see that if the state of the brain determines the behavior of the individual, and if the brain is damaged by a toxin which condemned it from the earliest years of childhood, the resulting behavior can be seen as a symptom of the brain. If that behavior is criminal, and if what made the individual's actions a crime can be attributed to known symptoms of a type of brain damage, then the amount of fault of that individual cannot be as great as if the crime were committed by someone without brain damage.


USEPA: accessed 2/21/05 accessed 2/21/05

Center for Disease Control: accessed 2/21/05

New England Journal of Medicine,
Rosen J. F., Mushak P., Primary Prevention of Childhood Lead Poisoning The Only Solution, New England Journal of Medicine, Volume 344, 2001

Rogan W. J., Dietrich K. N., et al., The Effect of Chelation Therapy with Succimer on Neuropsychological Development in Children Exposed to Lead, New England Journal of Medicine, Volume 344, 2001

Science Direct,
Canfield R. L., Henderson C. R. Jr., et al., Intellectual Impairment in Children with Blood Lead Concentrations below 10 g per Deciliter, New England Journal of Medicine, Volume 348, 2003

Konopka, Allan, The Secret Life of Lead, Living on Earth and World Media Foundation, 2003. accessed 2/21/05
Atkins V. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304, 122 S.Ct. 2242 accessed 2/21/05 accessed 2/21/05

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