CINCINNATI - Little kids put stuff in their mouths, which is how lead paint gets into their bodies--and into their brains.
MRIs show that exposure to lead in early childhood results in smaller brains.
"Lead is a metal, it's a poison that plays no useful role in the body. All it can do is damage the central nervous system," says UC environmental health researcher Kim Dietrich.
Dr. Dietrich leads the ground-breaking Cincinnati Lead Research Study. It's the longest continuing study of the effects of lead exposure on human brains and development.
The study began in 1979 at a clinic on Findlay Street in the West End. It began here because there was a high incidence of lead poisoning in Cincinnati.
Even though it was banned in 1978, lead paint still exists in older, once prosperous neighborhoods like the West End, Avondale and Over-the-Rhine. It has flaked off surfaces and become part of the dust and soil where children live and play.
"Why do these buildings have so much lead paint?" I asked Dr. Dietrich. "A lot of them were built before World War Two," he said. "Some have paint that is 50 percent lead in content."
Now Dr. Dietrich is searching for original participants in the study, some of whom have moved or lost touch.
"So right now you're looking for adults who started out in the studies as babies?" I asked.
"Not just as babies, some started out in the womb," he says. Their mothers participated in the study.
The message for those participants is: We need you back.
Researchers want to do an MRI and find out how lead exposure may have affected adult life.
Cincinnati Children's Hospital Radiologist Kim Cecil says lead exposure shrinks gray matter in the brain's frontal lobe, where high-level decisions are made.
"What's the effect of lead on the frontal lobe?" I asked.
"Since lead is blocking the cells' signals, it is blocking circuits, so to speak; they don't have as much gray matter to connect and make appropriate choices and control behavior."
The Cincinnati Lead Research Study was the first to use neuro-imaging techniques to measure lead's effect on the brain.
"It has been the first to associate childhood lead exposure with objective measures of brain damage, and social disfunction such as criminal behavior," says Dr. Dietrich.
The study has linked lead exposure to negative effects on IQ, memory, learning, and attention.
It's been linked to mood disorders and anger.
It was the first study to directly link lead exposure to criminal behavior.
Kim Dietrich wants people to know the danger exists today. He says children were living and are living still in a world of lead.
"You can't see this dust, its so small, and invisible. Lead poisoning is not caused by bad housekeeping, or bad mommies. It's caused by lead, which is everywhere around us here."
If you live in a house built before 1978, in one of the city's older neighborhoods, you should get your children tested for lead.
And if you are one of the study participants Dr. Dietrich is looking for, call Lisa at (513) 558-5816. You will be paid up to $150.
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