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 wellbeing. 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 wellbeing across the lifecourse, 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 dataset 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 geocoded 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 wellbeing over the lifecourse.


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 lifecourse. To this end, the proposed study seeks to produce and utilize a novel individual-level dataset, 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.