Professor explores link between lead poisoning, juvenile delinquency

Katharine Toledo, Staff Reporter

Through Case Western Reserve University’s Center on Urban Poverty and Community Development, Professor Rob Fischer is working on an initiative to find a link between lead poisoning, usually resulting from paint containing lead, and juvenile delinquency.  

Fischer is an associate professor at the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences, where he teaches graduate-level classes pertaining to social work and nonprofit management. He has taught classes including School of Applied Social Sciences 410: Nonprofit Data-Based Decision Making, School of Applied Social Sciences 532: Needs Assessment and Program Evaluation and School of Applied Social Sciences 545: Nonprofit Program Design. Fischer is also the co-director for the Center on Urban Poverty and Community Development, which works with low-income communities and their residents to understand the impact of social and economic changes within Cleveland.

Early studies conducted by Fischer and the Center show that around 25 percent of kindergarteners in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District have had significant exposure to lead poisoning, though in some cases the number of students affected by lead poisoning is as high as 40 percent.

Fischer’s studies also concluded that there is a discernible difference between children affected by lead poisoning on the East and West Sides of Cleveland. Those attending school on the East Side of Cleveland are much more likely to have exposure to lead than children attending school on the West Side.

Lead poisoning, while eliminated from the bloodstream quickly, can remain in the brain and cause damage for up to two years. If a child is exposed to lead at an early age they can experience developmental delays, learning difficulties, weight loss, hearing loss and later in life, issues with reproductive health and high blood pressure.

With the impact that lead poisoning can have on the development of those exposed to it early in life, Fischer’s research will help to determine whether or not a connection exists between exposure and a juvenile record in the future. According to the 2017 report of the Juvenile Division of the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas, there were over 13,000 delinquency charges throughout the year.

Fischer believes these charges could be related to the exposure of these children early in their childhood. Fischer’s hypothesis is consistent with a 2017 study of children in Rhode Island born between 1990-2004 by Anna Aizer and Janet Currie at the National Bureau of Economic Research.The study argues that as little as one microgram of lead per deciliter of soil could increase the probability of suspension between 6.5 and 10 percent. Aizer and Currie’s study also links exposure to lead to criminal records of exposed children in their adult years.

Fischer’s studies are particularly important because exposure to lead during childhood disproportionately affects minority children, especially African Americans, living in Cleveland. Children living in the poorest areas of Cleveland are most likely to be exposed to lead through lead in the paint of their homes and apartments. Though lead paint was banned in 1978, it is still in the walls and woodwork in many older buildings today.

If a link between juvenile delinquency and exposure to lead is confirmed, it could result in higher standards for landlords in Cleveland and other cities, and force them to remove lead-based paint from their properties before renting them out, as well as put in place a framework for the evaluation and education of students who might have been impacted by lead poisoning.