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Last Updated: 10/31/2017
 

 Article of Interest - Lead Poisoning

Why Some Children Can't Learn
Chapter 2 of A Strange Ignorance http://www.azsba.org/lead.htm
For more articles on disabilities and special ed visit www.bridges4kids.org


On January 20, 2000, Jim Haner of The Baltimore Sun wrote about the travail of a young student there:

Kyle Bridges lay down in the middle of McCulloh Street on his way to school last October. He rested his too-small head on his book bag. And he told his little brother to go on without him. "I'm sick of living," his brother recalled him saying. "I'm just gonna wait here till a truck comes and runs me over. Don't worry, I just want to die."

Kyle can barely read a word more than three letters long. He cannot do math at all, not even two plus two. He was in special education, but nothing the teachers tried or said seemed to stick. He was a playground outcast at Dr. Rayner Browne Elementary School, Booker T. Washington Middle and Highlandtown Middle.

Ridiculed as a 'retard,' he would lapse into confused and embarrassed gibberish. Under stress, he was prone to lash out at other kids, his teachers, his grandmother. For as far back as anyone can remember, he has had an explosive temper. Kyle is 12 years old. His small body is loaded with lead, ingested in a succession of East Baltimore slum houses toxic with peeling paint and dust.

"Lead is associated with most of the problems this child has had in his life," says Dr. Paul Law, Kyle's physician at Johns Hopkins Hospital's Harriet Lane children's clinic. "And it's certainly the most consistent and prominent feature of his personal history. It's all over his chart."

Once ingested, lead inhibits a child's ability to absorb iron, one of the basic building blocks of brain, nerve and bone development. It also stunts a broad range of chemical transmitters that affect hearing, sight and perception.

The resulting brain and nerve damage, experts say, can trigger a cascade of secondary effects that include learning disabilities, hyperactivity, increased aggression and a greater likelihood of criminal behavior. While treatment can reverse some damage, long-term exposure can cause lifelong deficits.

In Baltimore, lead exposure constitutes an epidemic that strikes more than 7,000 children every year and is a contributing factor in the city's crisis of violent crime, failing schools and disintegrating neighborhoods, experts say.


Children who suffer from lead poisoning, in fact suffer. They feel ill ("somatic complaints"), they know their brains do not function properly, they are frustrated by their inability to learn, and they feel a daily unease and agitation from the irritating presence of lead in their brain tissues. The presence of lead in the tissues is called a "lead burden" by researchers but it is a real physical burden for these children in many ways.

Research says their motor skills are affected, they have a debilitating attention problem, and that the chemical imbalance in their brain leads them to extreme behaviors in order to counter the agitation of that imbalance. Some discover that certain illegal drugs tend to moderate the agitation, often resulting in illegal drug use and the collateral problems of criminality.

The body excretes very little lead once it is incorporated into body tissues. Chelation therapy can remove lead still in the blood, but not lead already incorporated into body tissues. There was some hope for a few years in the late 1990s that a new drug called Succimer would reverse the effects of lead poisoning. The study was completed in 2001 and it failed. There is nothing that can be done once the brain damage occurs.

Over ten years ago, the 1991 Newsweek article explained

Why is lead so toxic? The body, in effect, mistakes it for calcium. The lead attaches to and disrupts enzymes essential to functioning of the brain and other cells. Because lead is an element, it never decomposes into another, more easily tolerated, substance. While it can be removed from the bloodstream through chelation, most of the lead that is absorbed into a child's brain sits there, literally, forever.

A recent study explaining how lead creates brain damage (Neuroscience, Volume 99, No. 2, 2000, pp. 233- 242) was summarized by a Crime-Times.org/issues.htm">Crime-Times newsletter:

Studying the deleterious effects of lead on learning and behavior, researchers at Johns Hopkins say they have identified one mechanism by which lead impairs the function of brain cells.

Michelle Nihei and colleagues tested rats with blood lead levels comparable to those of children suffering from lead toxicity. As expected, the lead-exposed rats performed more poorly than non-exposed rats in a test of learning, involving finding a hidden platform in a pool of opaque water. Testing another group of rats, the researchers found that the neurons of lead-exposed rats were unable to establish strong connections in response to conditioning.

Molecular studies of a third group of lead-exposed rats revealed that the effects of lead were due to the inhibition of the NMDA receptor, which plays a key role in learning. Normally, the NMDA receptor is triggered when it receives two incoming signals—for instance, messages resulting from the sight of snow and the sensation of coldness—and initiates chemical changes that lead to memory formation.

"We believe that lead, by decreasing these NMDA receptors, is interfering with calcium's entry into the neuron," says Nihei. "This is noteworthy since calcium is responsible for a huge cascade of cellular signals that ultimately propagate information and continue the nerve impulse on to the next synapse and neuron." (Crime Times, Vol. 7, No. 1, 2001 Page 3&6)

"... especially if the child can't seem to learn, no matter how hard he or she tries."
-the characteristic signature of lead poisoning

Research that finds lead "interfering" with "a key role in learning" in rats explicates that not "All Children Can Learn" if they have been poisoned by environmental lead. What this research indicates is that children who have lead poisoned brains have a vastly diminished capacity to learn. A diminished capacity not from lack of effort, or lack of instruction, but simply because the tissues in the brain lack the physiological ability to perform the chemically based process necessary for learning.

As far back as the July 15, 1991, Newsweek magazine cover story "Lead And Your Kids," there was widespread public awareness of this diminished capacity:

Only in the past decade have researchers focused on how lead damages development, even when kids don't show obvious medical symptoms. In the 1970s, the CDC defined lead poisoning as occurring when a child had 30 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood, the level at which problems like anemia, stomach ailments and noticeable learning troubles appear. But a 1979 study by Dr. Herbert Needleman, then a physician at Children's Hospital in Boston, found that asymptomatic working-class children in Chelsea and Somerville, Mass., who had higher lead residues in their teeth performed worse on IQ and development tests than those with less lead. A subsequent follow-up study showed that children with lead levels equal to 25 to 35 micrograms/dL were six times more likely to have reading disabilities and seven times more likely to drop out of high school.

The Needleman study was one of the first that tried to factor out other possible explanations such as family stimulation and parental IQ, and it triggered a wave of research on the low-level effects of lead. A 1987 study of 249 mostly middle- and upper-middle-income infants in the Boston area reported that those exposed to 10 to 25 micrograms/dL of lead in the womb lost four to six points on developmental tests measuring memory, learning and tasks like putting pegs into a board or naming parts of a doll. A 1987 study of 501 children in Edinburgh, Scotland, found that those with average blood levels of 11 micrograms/dL suffered similar intelligence losses, while another Scottish study reported that children with slightly elevated blood-lead levels were more likely to be considered hyperactive or aggressively antisocial by their teachers.

The diminished mental capacity of children exposed to lead is muffled because they seem to be normal kids. The key word is "asymptomatic" because what hides the horror of chronic lead poisoning is it usually occurs without symptoms, and what symptoms do occur often mimic other ailments. Children suffering from lead poisoning are labeled as colic, or hyperactive, or misbehaving, or inattentive. Lead poisoned children go to schools and are expected to perform academically as if nothing was wrong. As the politicians say, "All Children Can Learn." But can they really, if they have been poisoned?

The ferocity of the lead problem defies understanding by those who fail to appreciate how the cumulative affects of lead can build year after year, and that it is a known neurotoxin. Lead toxicity does not just occur when lead is ingested. Lead remains toxic in the blood, in the bones, in the brain, and other parts of the body in which it becomes incorporated, and this toxicity slowly increases with each new exposure. Studies have shown that lead in the bones of mothers, ingested perhaps in their youth, becomes "mobilized" during pregnancy and affects their fetus, poisoning its development (see: "Legacy of Lead" Environmental Health Perspectives, Vol. 109:5 May 2001, pg A224).

Similarly, Crime-Times, an Arizona based national newsletter devoted to "Linking Brain Dysfunction to Aberrant/Criminal/Psychopathic Behavior," (Volume 4, No. 4, pp. 1&2) reported on a 1997 study in Mexico (Pediatrics, Volume 100, No. 5, November 1997, pp. 856-862) that

T. Gonzalez-Cossio and colleagues recently tested 272 mother-infant pairs, and found that the mothers' tibia lead levels correlated inversely with their infants' birth weight. "Because lead remains in bone for years to decades," they say, "mobilization of bone lead during pregnancy may pose a significant fetal exposure with health consequences, long after maternal external lead exposure has declined."

Indeed, the National Academy of Sciences' Commission on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education issued a report titled "Minority Students in Special and Gifted Education" that states "Interestingly, the incidence for low birthweight for babies of African-born Black women more closely resembles that of U.S.-born whites than of U.S.-born Blacks" (page 3-4). One commonality between "African-born Black women" and "U.S.-born whites" is their general lack of exposure to environmental lead.

The Southwest Human Development organization and Arizona's Children's Action Alliance jointly published a 33- page booklet in February, 2001, titled "Make Kids Count: Giving Babies a Smart Beginning" which devoted its first chapter to "The Brain." In the first paragraph of this first chapter it states:

Recent scientific research concludes that 90 percent of brain development occurs between birth and age three. At birth, the human brain is not developed. Newborns start out with about 100 billion neurons (brain cells), which are the basic building blocks of the brain, and about 50 trillion synapses, or connections, among them. In the first year, the number of synapses increases to 500 trillion.

Unfortunately, other than a vague reference in the booklet's second chapter to "… exposure to environmental toxins…" there is no reference to lead poisoning. Yet it is "between birth and age three" that lead does the most damage (lead creates brain damage at all ages, but brain development is more rapid and more fundamental in the first three years).

Dr. Patricia M. Rodier, a researcher in the Department of Obstetrics/Gynecology at the University of Rochester, New York, made a presentation at a 1994 symposium on "Preventing Child Exposures to Environmental Hazards: Research and Policy Issues." Her presentation, titled "Developing Brain as a Target of Toxicity," (as reported by a 1995 National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences abstract) stated:

The blood-brain barrier is not fully developed until the middle of the first year of life. The number of synaptic connections between neurons reaches a peak around age two and is then trimmed back by about half. Similarly, there is great postnatal activity in the development of receptors and transmitter systems as well as in the production of myelin. …. toxic substances such as lead, seem to have their greatest effects during even later stages of brain development, perhaps by interfering with the trimming back of connections. (see at: http://ehpnet1.niehs.nih.gov/docs/1995/Suppl-6/rodier-abs.html)

A 1996 National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences abstract of a 1995 presentation by Robert A. Goyer, one of their scientists, at a symposium on "Toxicology and Chemistry of Metals" stated:

Experimental studies have shown that the developing nervous system is particularly sensitive to the toxic effects of lead and that a large number of the effects in the nervous system are due to interference of lead with biochemical functions dependent on calcium ions and impairment of neuronal connections dependent on dendritic pruning. (see at: http://ehpnet1.niehs.nih.gov/docs/1996/104-10/goyerabs.html)

Both the "trimming back of connections" and "dendritic pruning" refer to the same process of mental development that only occurs in the first three years of brain development. The interference with this process by lead poisoning during the first three years of life results in permanent brain damage, and an improperly "wired" brain. The consequences of this subtle damage are not subtle. Research is discovering that severe social and educational problems stem from this early interference with brain development.

The 1991 Newsweek article noted that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) had been lowering 'acceptable' lead levels because lead is so poisonous.

In the 1970s, the CDC defined lead poisoning as occurring when a child had 30 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood, the level at which problems like anemia, stomach ailments and noticeable learning troubles appear. … It takes strikingly little lead to cause lead poisoning. … To achieve blood-lead levels of 35 micrograms/dL, a child would have to eat just the equivalent of one granule of sugar a day. That's why a child can become ill merely by regularly touching a windowsill and then sucking his thumb.

Window sills and dust grains laced with lead are found throughout low-income neighborhoods in the United States. In 1991 a study of 1,454 Mexican-American children by Roberto Frisancho and Alan S. Ryan, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, linked lead poisoning to reduced stature of up to an inch. Science News (Volume 140, No. 12, September 21, 1991, pg 189) reported that

Although the federal Centers for Disease Control considers up to 30 micrograms per deciliter an 'acceptable' lead level in children, the high-lead group in this study averaged only 50 to 58 percent of that concentration. Indeed, Frisancho told Science News, stature-stunting effects appeared in children with blood lead levels as low as 10 micrograms per deciliter --- one-third the level previously reported to affect stature.

In 1992, researchers reported in The New England Journal of Medicine (Volume 327, No. 18, October 29, 1992, pp. 1279-1284) of a study done in Port Pirie, Australia, that measured IQ scores in 494 seven-year-old children. They reported

For an increase in blood lead concentration from 10 micrograms per deciliter to 30 micrograms per deciliter … the estimated reduction in the IQ of the children was in the range of 4.4 points to 5.3 points. This reduction represents an approximate deficit in IQ of 4 to 5 percent.

But it turns out new findings show this research missed the worst damage because it presumed a 10 microgram base. Dr. Bruce Lanphear, M.D., M.P.H., a physician in Cincinnati Children's division of General and Community Pediatrics, presented a paper at the April, 2001, Pediatric Academic Societies annual meeting. According to a press release issued by the Pediatric Academic Societies:

Dr. Lanphear and his research colleagues studied 276 6-month-old children born in five hospitals in Rochester, NY. They measured blood lead at 6, 12, 18, 24, 26, 48 and 60 months of age. A standard IQ test (Stanford-Binet IV) was administered when the children reached 60 months. Among all children studied, there was on average a 5.5 point reduction in IQ for every 10 micrograms per deciliter increase in blood lead. But for children who had blood lead less than 10 micrograms per deciliter, there was an 11.1 point reduction in IQ for the initial 10 microgram per deciliter increase in blood lead.

In other words, while other studies had shown a 5 to 6 point decline in I.Q. when blood lead levels increased from above 10 micrograms to above 20 micrograms, this loss occurred after the most severe damage occurred at the lower levels of lead exposure below 10 micrograms.

Since a normal IQ equals 100 points, a 10 percent loss is a 10 point loss in IQ. The standard deviation for IQ is approximately 15 points, which means two-thirds of the population have an IQ of between 85 to 115 (i.e. plus and minus one standard deviation). It also means that virtually nobody has an IQ below 55, three standard deviations below the average. A 10 point loss in IQ represents a substantial change in intelligence, equivalent to losing over one-fifth of the entire normal intelligence of a human being. It means many children born with normal intelligence become mildly retarded due to lead poisoning, and the mildly retarded become severely retarded.

A public health official in Philadelphia told me that he commonly finds people pooh-poohing even a 5% IQ loss, but in his lectures to doctors at medical schools he gets his point across by asking them how much they would give for a 5% increase in IQ. A graphical interpretation of such a loss among a general population is available at the website http://www.ourstolenfuture.org/NewScience/behavior/iqshift.htm demonstrating the particular loss of leaders, intellectuals, and other high intelligence human capital to that population.

During the 1990s, as more research on environmental toxins accumulated, the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) lowered its level of lead toxicity to 20 micrograms/dL and then to 10 micrograms/dL.

the medical research indicates that blood lead levels of 10 micrograms/dL are high enough to cause a reduction in physical stature and an 11.1 point reduction in mental IQ

But the medical research indicates that blood lead levels of 10 micrograms/dL are high enough to cause a reduction in physical stature and an 11.1 point reduction in mental IQ. The latest research makes it clear that the worst damage from exposure to environmental lead occurs with the initial exposure below the official 10 microgram level, and subsequent damage is attenuated. Any exposure to lead by a child "between birth and age three" is presumed to cause brain damage of some degree.

The level at which lead poisoning affects school performance is therefore now believed to have no safe limit. As Charles W. Schmidt, writing in Environmental Health Perspectives (Volume107, No.6, June 1999) noted:

"… a majority opinion holds that there is no threshold of effect in children, meaning that a level so low as to be without a measurable effect has yet to be identified." (see: http://www.mindfully.org/Pesticide/Poisoning-Minds.htm)

When children's brains have been built with lead instead of calcium in their first three years of life, there is nothing that "failing schools" can do about it, years later, as those crippled brains malfunction. Only intervention before those first three years to prevent exposure to environmental lead will prevent the damage from occurring. Only politicians can remedy that exposure. By the time the children reach school age, the damage is done.

The national newsmagazine U.S. News and World Report gave an example of this in their December 18, 2000, issue:

Theodore Lidsky watches small kids struggle to do the simplest things. He has seen children who try to copy a drawing and end up with a vague mess, or who have trouble putting pegs in a pegboard. These kids, some just 5, likely will fail in school and flail through life if they don't get help. And Lidsky, a neuroscientist at the New York State Institute for Basic Research on Staten Island, knows why. "Lead," he explains. "It wreaks havoc in the brain."

Dr. John Rosen, one of the foremost experts in lead poisoning at the Montefiore Medical Center of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York was quoted in the Albany Times-Union (September 12, 1999, pages E1, E9) as saying "if the poisoning isn't caught early the effects include extreme loss of intelligence and problems with language development and abstract thinking. … It doesn't actually kill children, it only kills their brains." Dr. Rosen was twice Chair of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Committee on Lead Poisoning and described by an appellate court decision as "a preeminent expert in the field relied on by all the relevant government agencies to establish the science for the policies that the government has adopted." (see at: http://laws.lp.findlaw.com/getcase/2nd/case/007511v2&exact=1 regarding U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in CAMPBELL v METROPOLITAN)

It should not take a great amount of intelligence to understand that if all low-income children were capable of learning, they would have been taught by the numerous endeavors of universities, foundations, government agencies, and school districts that have made the attempt. Human brains work by establishing connections between neurons with calcium ions. When the calcium ions have been replaced with lead ions, brains simply do not work properly. The evidence is very clear that schools are doing the best they can to overcome the achievement gap, but the problem is beyond the reach of the schools. By the time poisoned children reach the public schools, the damage is done, it was done during the developmental stages of brain development and it is irreversible.

Most of the public is already aware that schools are doing their best. They made this very clear in the PDK/Gallup Poll of the Public's Attitudes Toward the Public Schools (see: http://www.pdkintl.org/kappan/k0109gal.htm). When asked specifically "is the achievement gap between white students and black and Hispanic students mostly related to the quality of schooling received or mostly related to other factors?" the public overwhelmingly (parents 74%, non-parents 72%) chose "Other factors." So far, then, the public has not been fooled by Talibanic politicians, but the PDK/Gallup Poll did not explore exactly what comprises these "other factors."

However, the public is beginning to figure that out, too. The link between so-called "failing schools" and lead poisoning was recently outlined by a preliminary study performed in Pensacola, Florida. Parents complained to their state legislator that lead poisoning was behind their failing schools. When Escambia County Health Department Director Dr. John Lanza was asked by that legislator about lead poisoning in low-income areas of Pensacola with schools designated as "failing," he assigned a project to a University of Florida student to compare county blood lead level records with the test scores of students in failing schools. (see: http://www.med.ufl.edu/ahec/chs/lead.html)

Florida had implemented an assessment known as the Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test (FCAT) to label certain schools as "failing." A Pensacola News Journal article published July 30, 2000, summarized the subsequent report:

More children have been diagnosed with lead poisoning at Escambia County's poorest-performing schools than at any other schools, suggesting the toxic substance might be partly to blame for some of the state's worst standardized test scores in the last few years. ….

The study, conducted for the Health Department by a University of Florida medical student, is the first attempt locally - and perhaps in the state - to link high lead levels with poor academic performance. Most lead-poisoning cases involve students at A.A. Dixon Elementary and Bibbs Academy - which until this year were the state's only chronically failing schools - and Weis Elementary, which also failed the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT, last year. ….

Helen Crawford's voice grows soft as she talks about her 11- year-old granddaughter, Thomeshia King, a former Weis Elementary student who was diagnosed with lead poisoning four years ago. Thomeshia's symptoms, she said, were behavioral: crying spells, acting up in class, difficulty focusing on her school work. "Oh, she was out of control," said Crawford, 58, who has cared for Thomeshia since her mother died unexpectedly five years ago.

Poor attention spans and impulsive behavior are classic problems associated with lead poisoning, especially if the child can't seem to learn, no matter how hard he or she tries, said Dr. Henry Doenlen, a child psychiatrist and medical director of the children's stress treatment program at Baptist Hospital.

Read that carefully: when a newspaper reporter investigated the connection between lead poisoning and failing schools, "a child psychiatrist and medical director" was matter-of-factly quoted as defining the characteristic signature of lead poisoning as "especially if the child can't seem to learn, no matter how hard he or she tries."

It has long been documented that poverty exacts a tremendous burden on ill-fed, ill-housed, and often just plain ill children, and there are numerous social programs meant to ameliorate these problems. Low-income families often lack one parent, live in multi-family circumstances in overcrowded housing, with adults leaving and arriving late at night due to odd shifts. They are affected by crime, both as victims and perpetrators, with court appearances, hospitalization and incarceration affecting the employment and income of these families.

Politicians insist that these "parental problems" do not affect the children, that "All Children Can Learn" despite these "disadvantages." For many in poverty, perhaps this is true, but social workers have been stymied in addressing the problems of the so-called "hardcore poor," as if there were something intractable about their problems hiding in the shadows. There is an enormous difference between the consequences of poverty and the consequences of poverty induced lead exposure.

The issue of health care is doubly crucial because it has been well-documented that children absent from school more often tend to have lower test scores than those who attend regularly (for example, see: http://www.ade.state.az.us/standards/stanford9/stanford9graphs.asp).

There are many reasons why children might be absent from class, but the predominant one is because the child is sick. Low-income families that lack healthcare insurance tend to be sick more often and to have more serious illnesses because they lack medical intervention. Poor sanitation practices, often accompanying low-income status, contribute to more frequent illnesses from food poisoning and disease transmission. But lead poisoning itself produces a chronic illness that interferes with attendance.

The Tucson Citizen newspaper published an editorial by David Murray, director of the national Statistical Assessment Service, on June 28, 2000, which listed "seven lessons" for parents to improve their children's academic performance in school. The first was

Get your child to school every day. Obvious, sure, but attendance counts. A recent University of Minnesota study found attendance to be a better predictor of test scores than poverty. Those with 93 percent attendance aced the standardized tests. Those who attended only 85 percent of the time found their scores plummeting.

Perhaps not so "obvious" to Murray is that poisoned children with lead induced "somatic complaints" may need more than a prompting to go to school.

In addition, low-income children often attend school as a family unit: the older sibling assists the younger siblings in school attendance and after-school supervision. If the older sibling is ill, the younger siblings may not attend, and if the younger siblings are ill, the older sibling may need to stay home to supervise. Thus in low-income families with four children, these children may be twice as likely to become ill due to health and sanitation issues, and thus eight times as likely to miss school because all four children will miss school if one becomes ill.

More affluent parents will see fewer illnesses in their children, be able to take "family leave" if a child is ill, and able to pay for well-care to have sick children supervised. As a consequence, affluent children attend school more days than low-income children and are more likely to be cured and healthy when they return than low-income children. Many low-income children may be in attendance with pain from colds, allergies, asthma, ear infections, sore throats, abdominal upsets, and tooth decay that more affluent children do not endure. But then, of course, there is lead poisoning with its constant agitation and typical symptoms of "stomach cramps, vomiting, muscle cramps."

There is no question that poverty, by itself, creates a menagerie of difficulties for children. Yet, as troubling as the "lions and tigers and bears" of other social problems are, there is mounting evidence that environmental lead poisoning among the "hardcore poor" is an enormously larger problem, a metaphorical Tyrannosaur, erroneously believed by many to be extinct, stalking low-income neighborhoods and schools.

Environmental lead can be considered a predatory poison that primarily stalks the children of the hardcore poor, while more affluent children tend to be immune. Affluent families generally live in newer homes built after lead paint was banned. Even if the affluent live in older homes, the lead is typically covered by layers of new paint. The older the home, and the less it is maintained, the more likely the paint is to flake, chip, and powder. Low-income families tend to occupy these older "run down" homes because they are cheaper. Even so, children whose diets are high in calcium (milk, fresh greens, etc.) tend to excrete lead, but in children without adequate diets, lead replaces the missing calcium in bones, teeth and brain structures.

Thus lead exposure is unlikely to occur in affluent neighborhoods and even so, well-fed affluent children would excrete most of what little lead they encounter in life. In short, lead poisoning requires a combination of circumstances to exist. Even in neighborhoods infested with the "lions, tigers and bears" of normal poverty, only certain children will be mauled by the Tyrannosaur of lead poisoning. For all but the "hardcore poor, " environmental lead "doesn't exist." But for a very large percentage of the low-income children in America, this metaphorical monster does exist, and it is all too real.

When analyzing the comparatively mediocre performance of American students in the Third International Math and Science Study (TIMSS), researchers have noted that most other industrialized nations have anti-poverty programs for children, while an inordinately large number of American students live in poverty compared to the other nations. Researchers have noted that affluent American schools outperformed most international schools on tests of math and science, but that low-income schools in the United States do not.

Education Week newspaper (April 11, 2001) ran a story titled "A World-Class Education Eludes Many in the U.S." which began:

"It's official," a suburban Chicago school district proclaimed last week. "Naperville Community Unit School District 203 is the best school district in the world." …. The 18,900-student Naperville district, due west of Chicago, scored at about the same place as the top-scoring countries in both subjects. The First in the World Consortium, a group of suburban Chicago districts, also ranked near the top, as did the Academy School District No. 20 in Colorado Springs, Colo., and the Michigan Invitational Group in suburban Detroit. The districts are characterized by low poverty and relatively low enrollments of minority students.

The 140,500-student Montgomery County, Md., district in suburban Washington also ranked near the top in mathematics, but toward the middle of the pack in science. Though some of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the United States are in the county, half its school district's enrollment is made up of minority students, and about one-fourth of its students live in poverty.

On the other hand, the school districts in Chicago, Miami-Dade County, Rochester, N.Y., and Jersey City, N.J., all scored at or near the bottom—in the same range as such countries as Chile, the Philippines, Morocco, and South Africa. All the low-performing districts have high levels of poverty and minority enrollment.

The TIMSS-R results show that 90 percent of the students in the high-achieving areas scored above the international average, while only 30 percent of the students in the low-performing districts reached that level, according to Gordon M. Ambach, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Experts who research test scores in the United States have frequently noted the clear correlation between low-income and low test scores. Most experts spend their efforts arguing over whether it’s a minority problem with genetics, or a cultural problem with family support, or an income problem with differing resources, but no one seems to consider it could be beyond that: a consequence of lead-induced brain damage.

Consider, for example, even when comparing European students with American students of similar poverty levels, what no one has pointed out, hiding in the statistical shadows, is that most European countries outlawed the use of lead paint long before the United States.

The January, 2000, American Journal of Public Health (Volume 90, No. 1, pp. 36-46) published an article "'Cater to the children': the role of the lead industry in a public health tragedy, 1900-1955" on the history of lead in paint. It noted:

Outside the United States, the dangers represented by lead paint manufacturing and application led to many countries enacting bans or restrictions on the use of white lead for interior paint: France, Belgium, and Austria in 1909; Tunisia and Greece in 1922; Czechoslovakia in 1924; Great Britain, Sweden, and Belgium in 1926; Poland in 1927; Spain and Yugoslavia in 1931; and Cuba in 1934. In 1922, the Third International Labor Conference of the League of Nations recommended the banning of white lead for interior use. (See: http://www.ajph.org/content/vol90/issue1/)

Therefore, even the smaller proportions of impoverished children living in dilapidated housing in France, Sweden, Great Britain, Australia, etc., are not poisoned like similarly impoverished children living in the "Chicago, Miami-Dade County, Rochester, N.Y., and Jersey City, N.J." housing mentioned in the TIMSS comparison. With "socialized medicine" in most of those foreign countries, even where lead poisoning exists, the European children would be treated.

Thus international studies comparing academic achievement, such as the TIMSS test scores, compare poisoned and ill American children without adequate health care to unpoisoned healthy children in other countries and conclude the deficit is because of "failing schools." But there is a Tyrannosaur sized difference between impoverished children with healthy brains and those impoverished children suffering brain damage from environmental lead.

In January, 2002, the National Academy of Sciences' Commission on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education released its report titled "Minority Students in Special and Gifted Education." The committee was assigned the task of investigating why minorities were found to be over-represented in Special Education for learning disabilities and under-represented in gifted programs. The Executive Summary (see: http://www.nap.edu/books/0309074398/html/) noted in its first paragraph that

In the low incidence categories (deaf, blind, orthopedic impairment, etc.) in which the problem is observable outside the school context and is typically diagnosed by medical professionals, no marked disproportion exists. The representation of minority students occurs in the high-incidence categories of mild mental retardation (MMR), emotional disturbance (ED), and to a lesser extent learning disabilities (LD), categories in which the problem is often diagnosed first in the school context and the disability diagnosis is typically given without confirmation of an organic cause.

In other words, the committee found that minority children were diagnosed with problems symptomatic of lead poisoning by educators who were ignorant of lead poisoning and made the diagnosis on the basis of the symptoms "without confirmation of an organic cause." The education community may be oblivious to lead poisoning, but the committee was not. Page three of the Executive Summary states:

The committee's goal, then, was to determine why disproportion occurs. To address our charge, the committee asked four questions, the first of which was:

"Is there reason to believe that there is currently a higher incidence of special needs or giftedness among some racial/ethnic groups? Specifically, are there biological and social or contextual contributors to early development that differ by race or ethnicity?"

Our answer to that question is a definitive 'yes.' We know that minority children are disproportionately poor, and poverty is associated with higher rates of exposure to harmful toxins, including lead, alcohol and tobacco in early stages of development.

The committee disproved the allegation that educators were prejudicially referring minority children to special education. On page four of the Executive Summary the committee noted:

For example, research that has compared groups of students who are referred by teachers find that minority students actually have greater academic and behavior problems than their majority counterparts.

The committee then stated the obvious for which educators have proved oblivious: the problem begins before the children enter school. On page five, in the paragraph just before the "Conclusions and Recommendations" section, the Executive Summary reports:

The 'earlier is better' principle applies even before the K-12 years. The more effective we are at curtailing early biological harms and injuries and providing children with the supports for normal cognitive and behavioral development in the earliest years of life, the fewer children will arrive at school at risk for failure.

In the committee's "Conclusions and Recommendations" section, after several recommendations for dealing with the existing problems, the Executive Summary avers:

Biological and Social Risk Factors in Early Childhood
Existing intervention programs to address early biological harms and injuries have demonstrated the potential to substantially improve developmental outcomes. The committee concludes that the number of children, particularly minority children, who require special education can be reduced if resources are devoted to this end. In particular, the committee calls attention to the recommendation of the President's Task Force on Environmental Health Risks and Safety Risks to Children to eliminate lead from the housing stock by 2010.

This was a National Academy of Sciences committee assigned to investigate why minorities were over-represented in special education, and the scientists concluded it was lead poisoning in the housing stock. Although the education community appears oblivious to the devastating consequences of lead in the neighborhoods surrounding "failing schools," increasingly they are becoming the only ones to ignore the obvious.

There are reasons why children exposed to environmental lead can't learn. They can't learn because their brains have been damaged by lead. They can't learn because lead poisoning interferes with paying attention and causes discomfort. They can't learn because lead-induced ills force them to attend school less often than healthy children. Scientific evidence has documented that environmental lead causes academic failure.

Indeed, the characteristic signature of lead poisoning recognized by pyschiatrists is "... especially if the child can't seem to learn, no matter how hard he or she tries." Unfortunately, it turns out that academic failure may be the least of the problems induced by environmental lead.
 

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