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Neurological and behavioral consequences of childhood lead exposure

Bellinger DC.
Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts, United States of America.
PLoS Med. 2008 May 27;5(5):e115.

Among environmental chemicals, lead's reputation as a "bad actor" is confirmed in study after study. Over the past 30 years, we have learned that its toxicities are expressed in many forms, and, unfortunately, at levels of exposure that are still prevalent in the general population. The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's current screening guidelines for preventing lead poisoning in young children suggest that screening should be targeted at identifying those with a blood lead level of 10
μg/dl or more [1]. However, this level has no special biological significance and certainly should not be interpreted as "safe." Indeed, a "safe" level has yet to be found. Two new studies published in this issue of PLoS Medicine, both from the long-running Cincinnati Lead Study (CLS), extend our knowledge of lead's effects and their societal implications [2,3].


Comment in:
PLoS Med.
2008 May 27;5(5):e115.
Association of prenatal and childhood blood lead concentrations with criminal arrests in early adulthood.
Wright JP, Dietrich KN, Ris MD, Hornung RW, Wessel SD, Lanphear BP, Ho M, Rae MN.
Cincinnati Children's Environmental Health Center, Division of Criminal Justice, University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, Ohio, United States of America.

BACKGROUND: Childhood lead exposure is a purported risk factor for antisocial behavior, but prior studies either relied on indirect measures of exposure or did not follow participants into adulthood to examine the relationship between lead exposure and criminal activity in young adults. The objective of this study was to determine if prenatal and childhood blood lead concentrations are associated with arrests for criminal offenses.

METHODS AND FINDINGS: Pregnant women were recruited from four prenatal clinics in Cincinnati, Ohio if they resided in areas of the city with a high concentration of older, lead-contaminated housing. We studied 250 individuals, 19 to 24 y of age, out of 376 children who were recruited at birth between 1979 and 1984. Prenatal maternal blood lead concentrations were measured during the first or early second trimester of pregnancy. Childhood blood lead concentrations were measured on a quarterly and biannual basis through 6.5 y. Study participants were examined at an inner-city pediatric clinic and the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center in Cincinnati, Ohio. Total arrests and arrests for offenses involving violence were collected from official Hamilton County, Ohio criminal justice records. Main outcomes were the covariate-adjusted rate ratios (RR) for total arrests and arrests for violent crimes associated with each 5 microg/dl (0.24 micromol/l) increase in blood lead concentration. Adjusted total arrest rates were greater for each 5 microg/dl (0.24 micromol/l) increase in blood lead concentration: RR = 1.40 (95% confidence interval [CI] 1.07-1.85) for prenatal blood lead, 1.07 (95% CI 0.88-1.29) for average childhood blood lead, and 1.27 (95% CI 1.03-1.57) for 6-year blood lead. Adjusted arrest rates for violent crimes were also greater for each 5 microg/dl increase in blood lead: RR = 1.34 (95% CI 0.88-2.03) for prenatal blood lead, 1.30 (95% CI 1.03-1.64) for average childhood blood lead, and 1.48 (95% CI 1.15-1.89) for 6-year blood lead.

CONCLUSIONS: Prenatal and postnatal blood lead concentrations are associated with higher rates of total arrests and/or arrests for offenses involving violence. This is the first prospective study to demonstrate an association between developmental exposure to lead and adult criminal behavior.

PMID: 18507497 [PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]