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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of

Steve Curwood says, whether it's cost effectiveness, fear of violent crime or compassion and concern for the quality of life, confronting the hazards of childhood lead poisoning can bring us big dividends, if we're willing to look at the details and act.


CURWOOD: For the past 4 weeks Living on Earth has brought you this special series on lead poisoning because we've become increasingly concerned about the toll lead is taking on society, as well as its effects on personal health. The hazard to us all is something we've been slow to recognize, even as we've learned more about how lead affects individual behavior. We know large amounts of lead cause serious illness or death, and even small exposures are especially dangerous to children.

But at that point, many of us seem to close our eyes to the devil in the details. Tiny microtoxic doses of lead in children have been linked to lowered intelligence, and a 6-fold increase in learning disabilities later on in life. Now, not only is that a heavy personal burden, it's also an enormous social burden. Consider that special education costs billions in this country, perhaps $30 billion or more a year in public funds, not to mention private efforts at helping Johnny and Jane cope with hyperactivity, dyslexia, and the like.

Obviously, not every child who needs special education is a victim of lead poisoning. But even if only 1 such child in 10 is hurt this way, spending the $30 billion or so it would take to clean up the household lead hazard in America once and for all would pay for itself soon enough. It would also give us a smarter and safer society. Safer because those same minuscule doses of lead in youngsters are also linked to elevated violent crime and delinquency rates when these kids grow up. Two or three times higher, regardless of race, income, or population density. Smarter, because we'll avoid spending billions for remediation, this time for police, prisons, and security systems, when cutting household lead exposure would reduce crime. In fact, there's already some fascinating evidence showing that the elimination of lead from gasoline is linked to the current dip in crime rates.

So, take your pick. Whether it's cost effectiveness, fear of violent crime, or compassion and concern for the quality of life, confronting the hazards of childhood lead poisoning can bring us big dividends if we're willing to look at the details and act.



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