Research Engine

Poisoning the future of RI children

New research finds the connection between lead exposure, criminal activity and cognitive impairment

Photo by Richard Asinof

Students at Francis J. Varieur Elementary School in Pawtucket, who helped provide the backdrop for Gov. Gina Raimondo's staged press event in September of 2016 to announce her launch of a new strategic initiative to improve reading scores by third graders in Rhode Island. Research that showed a direct correlation between reductions in childhood lead poisoning and improvements in third-grade reading levels has still not been integrated as part of the strategic initiative.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 6/12/17
New research conducted by economists Anna Aizer and Janet Currie, looking at the connection between childhood exposure to lead poisoning, criminal activity and cognitive development in Rhode Island children, finds a definitive connection. The question remains: when will state officials and policymakers make lead removal from housing and the environment a top priority?
Why do early childhood advocates who want to improve third-grade reading scores not put more emphasis on lead removal as a top strategic priority? What would it take for Rhode Island Housing or the new Infrastructure Bank to develop a database that showed the location of every housing site where children had tested positive for lead exposures – and then making that database transparent to renters and buyers? What happened to the legislative commission on lead in water that was never officially convened after being approved by the R.I. General Assembly in 2016? What is the most appropriate public forum to share the research results of Aizer and Currie in Rhode Island?
When it comes to protecting the public from the man-made scourge of lead poisoning, beyond the work being done by the Childhood Lead Action Project, where are the political champions in Rhode Island? Will Rep. Aaron Regunberg broaden the “Fair Shot” agenda to include more aggressive enforcement of protections against childhood lead poisoning as an economic and educational equity issue? Will Sen. Joshua Miller lend his voice to efforts to remove lead from housing and the environment as a key public health strategy? Will the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce invest in efforts to make Rhode Island a lead-free state as a strategic element building a better workforce? Will Commerce RI create economic incentives to build lead-free innovation hubs?

PROVIDENCE – The most recent issue of American Prospect magazine, published on June 9, featured a story about the latest research by Anna Aizer, a Brown University economist, and Janet Currie, a Princeton University economist, looking at the relationship between lead exposure, criminal activity and cognitive development.

The research, “Lead and Juvenile Delinquency: New Evidence from Linked Birth, School and Juvenile Detention Records, had been published in May by the National Bureau of Economic Research as a working paper, looking at how the prevalence of lead poisoning in young children resulted in an increased probability of getting suspended from school and placed in juvenile detention.

The findings were based upon an analysis of what the authors called “a unique dataset linking preschool blood lead levels, birth, school and detention data for 120,000 children born [between] 1990-2004 in Rhode Island.”

From that data, Aizer and Currie estimate the impact of lead poisoning on behavior: school suspensions and juvenile detention. What they found was that even a small increase in lead increased the probability of suspension from school by 6.4 to 9.3 percent, as well the probability of detention by 27-74 percent [for boys].

Two factors make the research relevant as the nation grapples how to respond to public health crisis in lead poisoning, as evidenced by what happened in Flint, Mich., according to the American Prospect story:

Rhode Island, where Aizer and Currie focused their study, presented some unique research opportunities. Unlike most states, the number of children in Rhode Island who get screened for lead is high, close to 80 percent. Rhode Island children are also screened three times on average during their first six years of life. This means that the chances of getting an accurate measure of lead exposure are significantly higher than usual.

In their research, in which Aizer and Currie studied Rhode Island children born between 1990 and 2004, they were able to access state health department data on each child’s preschool blood lead levels from 1994 to 2010, and then linked that information to school suspension data for the 2007-2008 and 2013-2014 school years. The researchers also compared this information to data from the state’s juvenile detention facility and all Rhode Island correctional institutions.

Translated, the research had a strong statistical base for which to measure how childhood lead poisoning affected future outcomes in school suspensions, detentions and delinquency.

The larger import from the study is whether the research findings will result in policy changes in priorities to remove lead from housing and the environment as the most effective return on investment to improve educational and behavioral outcomes.

In the American Prospect story, the reporter, Rachel M. Cohen, cited the growing correctional expenditures at the federal, state and local levels, said to be more than $80 billion in 2010, according to the Brookings Institution. Cohen also cited a report by the Justice Policy Institute that found, after a survey of 46 states on their costs of juvenile detention, that the average per-person costs for the most expensive juvenile confinement options reached $407 a day, or nearly $150,000 per year.

“Governments need to think about this,” Aizer told Cohen. “Crime is just an incredibly expensive outcome for a state, and lead mitigation is so much cheaper relative to that.”

But, judging from the way that their recent previous research was virtually ignored by Rhode Island policy makers around statewide efforts to improve third-grade reading test scores, the answer is: not likely.

Attention deficit disorder by policy makers

The most recent study builds upon previous research by Aizer and Currie, published in August of 2016, also published as a working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research, which found that reducing children’s lead levels had significant positive effects on third-grade reading test scores in Rhode Island, especially for black and Hispanic students.

The co-authors included Dr. Peter Simon, an associate clinical professor in Pediatrics and Epidemiology at Brown University, and Dr. Patrick Vivier, an associate professor of Community Health and Pediatrics at Brown University, a pediatrician affiliated with Hasbro Children’s Hospital, and a member of the executive committee of the new Hassenfeld Child Health Innovation Institute.

As ConvergenceRI reported: The study constructed an individual-level longitudinal dataset that linked preschool blood lead levels with third-grade test scores for eight birth cohorts of Rhode Island children born between 1997 and 2005. It found that decreases in average blood lead levels reduced the probability of below proficient reading skills.

“Poor and minority children are more likely to be exposed to lead, suggesting that lead poisoning may be one of the causes of continuing gaps in test scores between disadvantaged and other children,” the study concluded.

Translated, if you want to improve test score performances in Rhode Island, the priority should be to invest in removing lead from the environment – from substandard, poorly maintained older housing, from drinking water, and from the soil.


On Sept. 14, 2016, Gov. Gina Raimondo traveled to the Francis J. Varieur Elementary School, where she officially announced that she was drawing a line in the sand, with a deadline of 2025, promising that three out of four third graders in Rhode Island will be reading at the appropriate grade levels. [See link to ConvergenceRI story below.]

After the news conference, when questioned by Simon, Raimondo said that she was unfamiliar with the study. Simon responded by saying he would send her a copy, which he did; but to date, Simon said that he has never had a response.

At the news event, Raimondo said that under the new strategic reading initiative, results were going to be tracked by the Governor’s performance management team, as a way of making the effort accountable. Yet, the data used in the study published in the National Bureau of Economic Research had all been taken from existing Rhode Island data sources.

As ConvergenceRI asked in its story: “Would the performance management team identify and track the correlation between reduced lead exposure and increased third-grade reading levels, using the methodology of the study? And, would it also correlate the results with the successful efforts of the Pawtucket Housing Department to enforce the housing codes to protect children and families? Good questions.

The takeaway

The continuing research by Aizer and Currie documents the continuing impacts of childhood lead poisoning as children age into young adults, directly affecting educational achievement and economic attainment.

For all the efforts now underway by the state to improve the preparation of students to enter the workforce, the best return on investment may be to eliminate lead from substandard housing in Rhode Island, which will both improve third-grade reading skills and lower future school suspensions and detentions.

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