Lead paint linked to lower test scores

By Stephanie Reitz
Associated Press / May 19, 2011

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HARTFORD — Children who ingested even small amounts of lead performed poorly later on school tests compared with students who were never exposed to the substance, according to a new study of Connecticut students.

The Duke University study also found that black children were much more likely to have experienced lead poisoning from paint residue, dust, or other sources by age 7 than the state’s white children. Educators worry that factor might be among many contributing to Connecticut’s status as the state with the largest achievement gap between the races.

Education and public health officials called the Duke study a stark reminder that although lead poisoning cases have dropped sharply nationwide in recent years, even very low levels of exposure can irreversibly influence children’s development.

“It’s compelling evidence. I think it provides even greater awareness to parents, medical providers, and advocates that lead poisoning is a serious issue and prevention is key,’’ said Francesca Provenzano, health program supervisor for the Connecticut Department of Public Health.

Duke researchers reviewed the cases of 35,000 Connecticut children whose blood tests showed lead exposure before age 7, then linked them to their fourth-grade reading and math scores on the 2008 and 2009 standardized Connecticut Mastery Tests.

They concluded that the greater their exposure, the lower the children tended to score — but that even those whose lead levels were lower than the established danger threshold were doing worse than peers who’d never been exposed.

The Children’s Environmental Health Initiative at Duke conducted the same study in 2009 of North Carolina students, finding a similar association between lead exposure and problems in academics. The federally funded Connecticut study, which state education officials asked Duke to conduct, was completed in February and presented this month.

Several other government and university research studies nationwide over the years have found links between lead poisoning and delays in academic and cognitive growth, although the Duke study is Connecticut’s first research linking individual students to their test results.

Lead was banned in house paint, cookware, and products marketed to children in the United States in 1978. However, it can sometimes still be found in many older homes, which are prevalent in the Northeast.

It is also found in some soil and household piping, though aggressive remediation efforts have been in place in Connecticut and nationwide for several years. When young children swallow lead in paint chips or inhale it in dust, it can lead to delays in physical and mental development, lower intelligence, shorter attention spans, and behavioral problems.

Connecticut also started screening all children in 2009 for lead exposure, helping pinpoint families, neighborhoods, and regions where more intervention is needed to remove lead hazards and more early intervention education services.

The Duke study of Connecticut students found that black children were overrepresented among those whose blood tests showed they were exposed to lead, which officials say may reflect the older urban housing.

Connecticut educators worry the lead exposure among black students could be one of many factors in the achievement gap between white and minority students, and between wealthy and poor students.

The National Assessment of Education Progress, an annual review mandated by Congress and overseen by the Department of Education, says Connecticut’s poorest students — many of whom are black — are about three grade levels behind their peers in reading and math, the largest gap among all states.