A recent study of kids in the city finds links between lead paint exposure and failure on standardized tests

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Lead paint: we’ve all heard about how dangerous it is for children. We’ve read the stories about children dying, having seizures, and developing illnesses and disorders after exposure to lead paint. A recent study has discovered, however, that some of the most widespread and damaging results of lead paint are far subtler than we originally imagined; namely, that children who were exposed to lead paint have much lower test scores in math and reading than children who were never exposed to lead paint.

Conducted in Chicago, the study took a look at children born from 1994 to 1998. Using medical records as a baseline, they watched for high lead levels in blood tests. Blood levels were then compared to scores on standardized tests, taken when the children were in third grade, between the years of 2003 and 2006. Adjustments were made to accommodate for wealth level, gender, parents’ education level, and race.

Despite these adjustments, there still seemed to be a strong link between high lead levels in blood tests and very poor math and reading scores. To be precise, having as little as five to nine micrograms of lead in a deciliter of blood made a child 32% more likely to fail math and reading tests. The study also found that 13% of those who failed reading and 15% of those who failed math standardized tests could be linked back to lead exposure.

In the scheme of Chicago’s educational system, these numbers are extremely important, especially when it comes to the children who are just barely passing. If they had been unaffected by lead paint, they would be less likely to fail, and therefore, more of the students would succeed.

Of course, lead paint exposure is more common low-rent and low-income parts of the city, where the houses are older and get far less maintenance. Though the use of lead paint has been banned since the early 1970s, even lead paint that has been painted over by safer paint can still pose a threat. And because children in low income families are more likely to have to play with older toys and live in rundown residences, they are disproportionately affected by this issue.

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