'There is no safe level:' UWM study finds link between childhood lead exposure, firearm violence

MILWAUKEE --A study from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee revealed a link between childhood exposure to lead and later gun violence.

According to a news release from UWM, these results suggest even greater urgency to tackling childhood lead exposure and addressing the environmental injustice of vulnerable children experiencing a toxic exposure that they cannot control.

“This is the first study to look specifically at the link between childhood lead exposure and gun violence,” said Lindsay Emer, the primary author, in the news release. “Effective lead exposure prevention strategies already exist, and we know that there is no safe level of lead. This research provides further urgency to fully support these efforts with the resources that are needed.”

The study, done at UWM’s Joseph J. Zilber School of Public Health, used public health, education, and criminal justice datasets covering more than 89,000 people born in Milwaukee between June 1, 1986, and Dec. 31, 2003, with a valid blood lead test before they were 6 years old.

Researchers found that as childhood blood lead levels increased, the risk for becoming a perpetrator or victim of gun violence increased, even after controlling for temporal trends, gender, race, and neighborhood socioeconomic status, according to the release.

The link was so strong that about half of gun violence perpetration and victimization were attributable to blood lead levels 5 µg/dL (the current reference level for elevated lead). That means that in Milwaukee, during a period of high lead exposures, childhood blood lead levels may have substantially contributed to adult gun violence, although the release said the study was not able to definitively prove cause and effect.

The findings are bolstered by known links between lead exposure and the brain, especially through impairing future decision-making and increasing impulsiveness, traits that may influence criminal behavior.

CLICK HERE to access the study.