University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Press Release

Study Finds Link Between Childhood Exposure to Lead and Firearm Violence

The link was so strong that about half of gun violence perpetration and victimization was attributable to blood lead levels ? 5 µg/dL (the current reference level for elevated lead).

By - Oct 18th, 2019 10:36 am

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

The link was so strong that about half of gun violence perpetration and victimization was 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 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.

The study will be published in Environmental Research and can be found online. A pre-proof of the article can be downloaded here.

About UWM
Recognized as one of the nation’s 131 top research universities, UW-Milwaukee provides a world-class education to 27,500 students from 91 countries on a budget of $689 million. Its 15 schools and colleges include Wisconsin’s only schools of architecture, freshwater sciences and public health, and it is a leading educator of nurses and teachers. UW-Milwaukee partners with leading companies to conduct joint research, offer student internships and serve as an economic engine for southeastern Wisconsin. The Princeton Review named UW-Milwaukee a 2020 “Best Midwestern” university based on overall academic excellence and student reviews.

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