Aug 23, 2022 - News

Study finds link between racial segregation, lead exposure

Lead paint chipping on a window sill.
Chipping lead paint. Photo: Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Black students in North Carolina were more likely to be exposed to lead in racially segregated neighborhoods — one factors associated with dragging down their test scores in reading.

Driving the news: A new study by Duke University researchers, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, included surveys of 25,000 North Carolina fourth graders.

  • But the findings could be applicable to the country overall, Mercedes Bravo, an assistant research professor of global health at Duke University and the lead of the study, told Axios in an interview.
  • About 500,000 children in the U.S. have elevated levels of lead in their blood, the New York Times reported earlier this year.

Why it matters: Lead exposure is dangerous at any level and can hurt cognitive development. Lead paint has been banned since 1978 — but can still be found in many older homes. Removing it from a home can also be expensive.

  • "Kids are exposed at these really young ages, and lead can persist in their body for a long time," Bravo said. "It can really be harmful because of all these critical and sensitive developmental windows early in life."
  • The consequences of lead exposure can last into adulthood, "affecting intelligence and socioeconomic status."

The big picture: Racial disparities in education may emerge in early childhood, the study notes, meaning early interventions are important.

  • "If we look at fourth grade, this is a sort of opportunity for early intervention for these kids," Bravo said. "We don't have to wait until they're considering dropping out of high school or when they're failing eighth grade."

Read the full study

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