CLEVELAND, Ohio – Cleveland school students who were exposed to high levels of lead at a young age are far more likely to be charged with crimes as juveniles and incarcerated as young adults, often after years of falling behind in school, according to new research from Case Western Reserve University.
Lead poisoning was most devastating for Black students, a disparity that has not improved even as the overall number of children poisoned here has dropped over the last two decades.
Researchers from Case’s Center on Urban Poverty and Community Development traced the trajectories of thousands of students who attended Cleveland Metropolitan district schools over two decades in order to understand the later in life or “downstream” impacts of lead exposure.
The study used a database to track the children who were tested for lead by the age of three through different “systems” they encountered as they got older, including juvenile and adult court, intake for homeless services, and applications for public cash or food benefits.
In order to untangle harms that stem from lead exposure – as opposed racial discrimination or being poor, or other trauma – researchers compared outcomes up to age 23 for kids who had higher levels of lead, and those who had much lower or no exposure to the toxin, said Claudia Coulton, a co-director of the Poverty Center, who spearheaded the research.
Children who were lead-poisoned at the higher levels were:
- Up to 30% more likely to be charged with a crime as a juvenile;
- 40% more likely to experience homelessness;
- 34 % more likely to be incarcerated before the age of 23;
- Up to 43% more likely to be charged with a violent crime.
Previous studies related to lead focused on younger Cleveland children and how damage to their brains could hamper their learning and development. This is the first local research to follow the path from lead poisoning to prison.
The early impacts of lead are well understood, said Gabriella Celeste-Cohen, policy director at the Schubert Center for Child Studies at Case.
“But to see the longer-term impact of juvenile and criminal justice system involvement and to consider what this means for our Cleveland children and young people is chilling,” Celeste-Cohen, co-chair of the Ohio Lead Free Kids Coalition said.
“That’s why preventing exposure, which most often happens in and around homes where children live or spend time, is the best strategy, Coulton said. After-the-fact interventions, like high quality Pre-K, cannot undo the damage, which has high costs to the children their families and the community.”
After several years of debate, activism and advocacy, Cleveland adopted a set of “lead safe” laws last year that are proactive and will require rental homes to be inspected for lead hazards by March of 2021.
The children followed in the study are now in their late teens and 20’s and are too old to benefit from new laws and policies.
“Many likely didn’t know or understand that being exposed to a hazardous toxin contributed to their learning problems or trouble controlling impulses,” said Yvonka Hall, Executive Director of the Northeast Ohio Black Health Coalition.
“They might not have known why they got so mad,” she said, “Or other people might have said ‘He’s just crazy or he’s aggressive or he’s mean’ not realizing that there was something going in their brain that was due to the lead.”
Hall said she wonders what can be done now for the young adults represented in the study.
“In a way we have left them out,” she said. And while the damage can’t be reversed, Hall said, the community can look for ways to recognize the harm and to offer assistance, whether training for jobs or assistance coping with mental health or even addiction issues that stem from the use of substances like marijuana to calm the brain.
“It could still change their lives and the lives of their families,” Hall said.