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Leaded Gasoline Responsible for Spike in Childhood Lead Exposure, Study Finds

Posted on February 22, 2011

A recent study conducted by Case Western Reserve University professors Dr. Norman Robbins, Dr. James A. Lalumandier and Dr. Richard A. Shulze found that leaded gasoline usage lead to dangerously high levels of lead exposure for children during the mid-1970s. The study, titled “Childhood Lead Exposure and Uptake in Teeth in the Cleveland Area During the Era of Leaded Gasoline”, was published in Science of the Total Environment in 2010.

The study examined lead levels through testing of tooth enamel, a more reliable method for study of past lead exposure than blood lead levels. Tooth enamel develops with layers, similar to tree rings, that can give a picture of the environment at the time of development. In comparing tooth enamel to data from Lake Erie’s core, the researchers were able to show that lead exposure for children rose and fell with levels of atmospheric lead, which usually comes from car emissions. Additionally, lead levels were higher in people who had lived in high traffic neighborhoods during their childhood. The reduction in lead exposure during the phasing-out of leaded gasoline occurred concurrently with the reduction in lead from other sources, such as paint and food cans, which may have also been a factor in the drop in the level of lead found in teeth.

Lead exposure in children can lead to various gastrointestinal, neuromuscular and neurological symptoms. Currently, lead paint is the leading source of lead exposure in children in the United States. However, leaded gasoline is still in use in some parts of South America, Asia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East and is used extensively in North Korea, Yemen and Afghanistan.

Dr. James Lalumandier is a Schubert Center Faculty Associate. He has previously given talks for the center on his efforts to provide local school children with free dental examinations and sealants. A policy brief on his work can be downloaded here.

Watch a video on the study.

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