Lead Poisoning: Perhaps the Main Source Behind Chicago’s Youth Violence – Lessons for Los Angeles

Lessons For Los Angeles
By Jacqueline Jacobs Caster and Jim Mangia

 Last week, the 5th and final youth was convicted of first degree murder of Derrion Albert, a 16 year old beaten by a student mob near a Chicago high school in 2009.

 During the last several years, there has been an epidemic of deadly violence amongChicago’s schoolchildren.  The crisis recently prompted National Public Radio to dedicate a 7 part series to the topic. Its report included the astonishing fact that nearly 700 children in the city were hit by gunfire last year – an average of almost two a day, with 66 fatalities – and that the number is up over the prior year despite an overall decline ofChicagohomicides to a 45 year low.

 A recent analysis of over 500 children touched by this violence indicated that those most at risk tend to be youth lacking a stable home environment, enrolled in special-ed, skipping school an average of 42 days annually and having behavioral flare-ups at 8 times the rate of a typical student.  The proposed solution was to provide paid after-school jobs and adult attention to those at-risk in order to deprive them of the opportunity to stray. The NPR report also spotlighted other useful strategies such as pairing youth with mentors and initiating programs that create a “culture of calm”.

 While we are not disputing the value of these approaches, there may be another underlying problem – huge unnoticed red flags being vigorously waved:  far higher than average rates at which 1) these children are enrolled in special education and 2) exhibit behavioral flare-ups – both possible indicators of lead poisoning.

 The primary culprit of lead poisoning is substandard housing conditions. Though federal, state and local governments were aware that exposure to lead was directly damaging to children as early as the 1930s, legal bans on lead paint were not passed until 1978.  Most ofChicago’s inner-city children live in pre-World War II housing with limited money available for housing maintenance – a situation that also exists in low-income neighborhoods ofLos Angeles. 

 Multiple studies in leading medical journals reveal that blood lead levels in children as low as 3 micrograms per deciliter can cause serious developmental disabilities and dramatically lowered IQs – perhaps causing the higher than normal rates of special-ed enrollment in this Chicago neighborhood.  Additionally, numerous studies, some dating as far back as 1979, show a strong link between anti-social and impulsive violent behavior in those with childhood lead poisoning. 

 In 1998, Dr. Herbert Needleman compared a group ofPennsylvaniachildren in the juvenile justice system against those with no criminal behavior.  He found that the convicted children had bone lead levels 10 to 11 times higher than their non-offending counterparts.  In the first longitudinal study of the issue, Professor Deborah Denno weighed more than 3,000 factors to see what correlated with incarceration and criminality.   She discovered that an elevated lead level in blood was the single highest predictor of school behavioral problems and the third highest predictor of juvenile crime.

 Currently, the Centers for Disease Control classifies 10 micromoles of lead per deciliter of blood as a dangerous blood lead level – more than three times the level that causes decreased brain function in children.  As a result, most government health agencies will not intervene until a child is severely poisoned, often with levels as high as 30 and has severe irreversible brain damage.  The CDC needs to change its standards.

 InCalifornia, even with the recent passage of SB 460 that empowers government agencies involved to enforce lead safe practices in housing and construction, state and local government has been slow to protect our children.  In response, St. John’s Well Child and Family Center (and a coalition of nonprofit organizations including Strategic Actions for a Just Economy and Esperanza Community Housing Corporation), supported by a $1 million grant from The Everychild Foundation, has created the innovative pilot demonstration project, Healthy Homes Healthy Kids, to dramatically reduce lead exposure in 4,000 children here in South Los Angeles.  The program provides staff to help safely mitigate lead hazards in dwelling spaces of children and, if needed, facilitate legal advocacy.

 The public must demand that government take its lead from such foundation-supported, community-based strategies, and that the CDC revise its acceptable standard for blood lead levels.  Otherwise, our urban communities are likely to see the continued tragedy resulting from youth violence as well as the concomitant problems a concentrated population of brain-damaged individuals will bring to their communities as they age.


 Jacqueline Jacobs Caster is the Founder and President of The Everychild Foundation, a grant-making organization comprised of over 200 local women which has filled critical unmet needs of over 400,000 Los Angeles area children since its founding in 1999.

 Jim Mangia is President & CEO of St. John’s Well Child and Family Centers, a network of federally qualified health centers in south Los Angeles providing medical, dental and mental health services to more than 120,000 patient visits each year.  He is also the founder of the South Los Angeles Health & Human Rights Conference.




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