Lead Exposure in Early Life Linked to Higher Risk of Criminal Behavior in Adulthood

GW researchers’ analysis spotlights need for policies to prevent future health and social problems from lead exposure.

August 2, 2023

GW graduate student Maria Jose Talayero Schettino discusses the effects of lead exposure on behavior.

GW graduate student Maria Jose Talayero Schettino discusses the effects of lead exposure on human behavior.

New analysis from researchers at the George Washington University has linked lead exposure, either in utero or during childhood, with an increased risk of engaging in criminal behavior in adulthood. This is the first study to examine the existing data at the individual level of exposure and effects, although prior research has found an association between lead exposure and criminal behavior at the aggregated population level. 

The first systematic review of available studies addressing links between individual lead exposure and crime or other antisocial behaviors, the research team’s analysis included 17 studies from three countries that have developed cohorts. These employed a variety of methods measuring lead exposure and addressed the effects of exposure at different ages, from gestation to adolescence.

“While more individual-level data needs to be collected to verify the connection of the effects of lead exposure during childhood and criminal behavior in adulthood, the evidence we found points in the direction of lead exposure being associated with biological effects in children that have long-term behavioral consequences,” said Maria Jose Talayero Schettino, the study’s lead author and a doctoral student at GW’s Milken Institute School of Public Health. “The data clearly demonstrates the need for all countries to implement policies to prevent lead exposure.”

Lead exposure can cause a variety of health problems, which are known to be more severe in the pediatric population, as children’s bodies absorb lead at greater rates than adults. Lead exposure in utero or during childhood can cause irreversible damage to a child’s nervous system, Talayero Schettino explained. And despite the well-known dangers, a number of countries lack sufficient policies to protect children and adults from lead exposure.

Watch video of Talayero Schettino discussing the study's findings.

Exposure comes from many different sources, including pollutants from industrial waste, recycling batteries, paints with lead content, various food sources and household products, such as children’s toys, ceramics and cookware. Cookware is of special concern, including pottery from Asia, aluminum cookware from Africa that may contain excess lead, and artisanal pottery from Mesoamerica not certified to be lead-free.

Talayero Schettino said her team’s review identified a range of diverse outcomes between exposure to lead at multiple stages of development and later delinquent, criminal and antisocial behavior. She stressed that criminal behavior in individuals is a complex concept, with many additional factors involved beyond the exposure to lead during development. And people in the lowest socioeconomic strata, regardless of their country of origin, face the highest risk of exposure.

One limitation researchers found was that each study used different definitions to indicate criminal, aggressive or antisocial behavior in adulthood. Another was the scarcity of studies with individual-level data, which left wide geographical and demographic gaps. Talayero Schettino said additional studies should include a wider range of regions and countries and utilize a common set of indicators for both exposure and outcome to measure the overall impact. Despite these limitations, she said that existing data, in conjunction with the available biological evidence, point to the harmful behavioral effects of early exposure.

“There is no safe level of lead exposure for children, and countries should extend all efforts to protect children and pregnant persons from lead containments,” she says. “The evidence in the systematic review supports a strong action by governments and society to act to protect those in most vulnerable conditions.” 

The article, “The Association Between Lead Exposure and Crime: A Systematic Review,” was published August 2, 2023 in the PLOS Global Public Health. In addition to Talayero Schettino, the research team comprised Carlos Santos Burgoa and Emily Smith, professors of global health at Milken Institute SPH, and graduate student Rebecca Robbins.