The slide shows blood cells contaminated by lead. Credit: File photo

In November I previewed a new lead-safety group that shares my concerns about the insidious damage lead poisoning inflicts on a child’s cognitive development. Repercussions range from low test scores to loss of impulse control and even appear to have an impact on crime rates.

The group officially debuted last month as Lead Safe Louisiana and announced that they would focus on removing lead hazards in daycare centers and playgrounds in at-risk neighborhoods. NolaDefender had a fine write-up about the group’s founders the day prior to their well-attended fundraiser at The Foundation Gallery. The proceeds of that event will help decontaminate the playground at Abeona House child discovery center.

Lead Safe Louisiana’s emergence could not have been better timed, as it followed Kevin Drum’s enormously important article about the link between lead and crime in the January issue of Mother Jones magazine. In his piece, Drum distilled research showing lead exposure as a key factor in the dramatic increase and decline of violent crime in America since 1970.

Criminologists continue to fumble for reasons why crime skyrocketed between 1970 and 1990 and then steadily declined afterwards despite wars, demographic bulges and the Great Recession. It’s a mystery that none of the usual hypotheses — such as “get tough” police laws or murky “cultural” shifts — can explain.

The impact of lead exposure on children strongly correlates with confounding crime trends. Drum summarizes lead research done on multiple levels: individual, neighborhood, national and even international. The associations between childhood lead exposure and violent crime rates always lines up perfectly.

Drum distills Tulane University professor Howard Mielke’s decades of research on the topic. Like so many lead activists and concerned parents, Mielke learned about the issue after he was “haunted” by his child’s high lead readings over three decades ago. After careful sampling, mapping and study, Mielke concluded that the chief culprit was lead from automobile exhaust fumes. The lead particles had settled into urban garden soils, and children who played in the contaminated soils inevitably ingested the poisonous particles.

The seventies — just before unleaded gas was finally phased in — marked the apex of contamination. Mielke says that surveys at the time indicated nearly nine in 10 kids were lead-poisoned. So, roughly speaking, Generation X grew up and crime increased. But subsequent generations were less poisoned by lead and lower crime rates followed.

In January Mielke, Drum and others discussed the issue on Melissa Harris-Perry’s show on MSNBC. Locally, WWL ran a story about the lead-crime link that included activist Sarah Hess’s story as well as informative links to Mielke’s latest research.

Lead Safe Louisiana features a quote from Drum’s article at the top of their blog page. That’s a smart move, in my opinion, because the link to crime fosters the possibility of  political traction. Overwhelming research shows that lead is bad for a child’s cognitive development. But there’s no outrage over that. The sad reality seems to be that no one pays attention to the effects of lead on public health, on education, and on the environment. But a connection to crime — that wakes everyone up. Maybe it will even stir the kind of outrage that translates into political will and leads to an organized attack on the problem.

The fact is, New Orleans has a high amount of lead in its soils.  And as I recall, we have a persistent crime problem. If we follow the direction of Mielke, as Lead Safe Louisiana intends, and work to remediate and cover play areas in contaminated areas, the compounded future dividends would be enormous. Lower crime, higher test scores, healthier kids — what other single initiative can bring so many combined benefits?

Talk to your pediatrician about it, as I did, and see if she regularly tests for lead. (Mine does.)

One last thing. I want to give special praise to Abeone House director Emmy O’Dwyer, who had the courage to face the problem head on, even though it meant raising a worrisome issue with parents whose children attend her center. Sure, ignoring the problem might have been easier and perhaps cost-effective in the short run. No doubt many other day care centers do so. But that approach only kicks the (lead) can down the road.

I think O’Dwyer’s situation is a microcosm of what we’re facing as a city. Do we want to ignore the lead problem or only address it in piecemeal fashion, as more kids become poisoned? Or do we address it responsibly as O’Dwyer did, right now, and work together to solve it?

Mark Moseley

Mark Moseley blogs at Your Right Hand Thief. Until mid 2014, Mark Moseley was The Lens' opinion writer, engagement specialist and coordinator for the Charter Schools Reporting Corps. After Katrina and...