Exposure to Lead-Based Paint Is Still Impacting the Racial Gap in Educational Progress

A new study by scholars at Duke University, Rice University, and the University of Notre Dame finds that greater exposure to lead-based paint among Black children continues to have a negative impact on their educational success.

Lead-based paint was banned in the United States in 1978. But people who live in the nation’s older housing stock – primarily those in impoverished urban areas still are at high risk of exposure to lead-based paint. Studies have shown that exposure to lead can have a significant negative impact on the cognitive abilities of young children.

After controlling for a number of variables, the research team linked 25,699 North Carolina birth records to blood lead surveillance data and educational test scores. The research team assigned geographic locations based on census tract-level data to create a unique population-based dataset that links the information across time and geography. They found that lead exposure is associated with lower test scores among all children. But, non-Hispanic Black children are more likely to be exposed to lead and more likely to live in racially segregated neighborhoods, which amplifies the negative effects of lead exposure.

“Black children are more likely to be exposed to lead and are also more likely to live in racially segregated, predominantly Black neighborhoods,” notes Mercedes Bravo, an assistant research professor at the Global Health Institute at Duke University and lead author of the study. “When these two exposures co-occur, children had worse-than-expected scores.”

Marie Lynn Miranda, director of the Children’s Environmental Health Initiative and professor of applied and computational mathematics and statistics at the University of Notre Dame and a co-author of the study added that “in the midst of our country’s racial reckoning, we must work harder to understand and ultimately act on the deep effects that environmental justice and structural racism have on our country and our communities. This paper tackles both issues head on by showing that a clear issue of environmental justice (childhood lead exposure) is further compounded by the structural racism that Black families in particular face in the United States, as demonstrated through racial residential segregation.”

The full study, “Racial Residential Segregation Shapes the Relationship Between Early Childhood Lead Exposure and Fourth-Grade Standardized Test Scores,” was published on the website of the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences. It may be accessed here.

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