Childhood Lead Exposure and Adolescent Risk-Taking Behaviors: Assessing a Potential Explanation for Recent Declines in Teen Childbearing Using Individual Level Data


Dr. Cynthia Colen, Department of Sociology
Rank at time of award: Associate Professor
Dr. Catherine Calder, Department of Statistics
Rank at time of award: Professor
Dr. Christopher Browning, Department of Sociology
Rank at time of award: Professor


Since the passage of the Clean Air Act in 1973, lead exposure levels among young children in the United States have been rapidly declining. Despite these public health advances, it has become apparent that even exposure to low levels of lead during critical periods of neurodevelopment, such as those that occur between birth and age 5, is likely to leave lasting impacts on subsequent health and well-being. More recently, scholars have proposed early exposure to lead as a potential explanation for recent sustained declines in both rates of violent crime and teen births. Unfortunately, a preponderance of this body of evidence solely relies on aggregate level data, often from disparate sources, and can only point to possible correlations. Little is known, on an individual-level, how childhood lead exposure impacts later social and economic outcomes. To further our understanding of how this powerful neurotoxin might influence health and well-being across the life course, we will estimate the association between preschool lead exposure (< 5 years) and adolescent risk-taking behaviors, specifically teen childbearing and school-based disciplinary outcomes at the level of the individual. To accomplish this, we will create a new and novel data set by combining data on all Ohio residents under the age of 5 who were tested for lead poisoning through the Ohio Department of Health with birth certificate data from Ohio Vital Statistics and educational outcomes data from Center for Human Resource Research’s Ohio Longitudinal Data Analysis (OLDA) Project. These data will be geo-coded at longitude and latitude, allowing us to incorporate additional geographic characteristics that are likely to mediate or moderate the impact of early lead exposure on adolescent risk-taking behavior. By so doing, we hope to further elucidate the critical importance of early life conditions on health and well-being over the life course.


Lead exposure during early childhood has numerous deleterious effects on subsequent health and wellbeing. Although levels of lead among preschool age children have been consistently declining over time, recent public health emergencies such as the situation in Flint, Michigan have underscored the importance of more accurately understanding the long-term implications of early lead exposure on outcomes later in the life course. To this end, the proposed study seeks to produce and utilize a novel individual-level data set, which will combine information from a number of existing Ohio-based administrative sources, to better estimate the influence of exposure to lead from birth to age 5 years on risk-taking behaviors during adolescence and young adulthood.

Publications resulting from this seed grant

2019. Cifuentes, P., Reichard, J., Im, W., Smith, S., Colen, C., Giurgescu, C., Williams, K.P., Gillespie, S., Juarez, P.D. and Hood, D.B. "Application of the Public Health Exposome Framework to Estimate Phenotypes of Resilience in a Model Ohio African-American Women’s Cohort." Journal of Urban Health, pp.1-15. PMCID: PMC6430281

2016. Ard, Kerry, Cynthia G. Colen, Marisol Becerra*, & Thelma Velez*. Two Mechanisms: The Role of Social Capital and Industrial Pollution Exposure in Explaining Racial Disparities in Self-Rated Health. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 13:1025-1040. PMCID:PMC5086764 

2016. Colen, Cynthia G., David M. Ramey*, & Christopher R. Browning. Declines in Crime and Teen Childbearing: Identifying Potential Explanations for Contemporaneous Trends. Journal of Quantitative Criminology 32:397-426. PMCID:PMC5040460