Lead exposure and academic achievement: evidence from childhood lead poisoning prevention efforts
Though the adverse consequences of lead exposure in children have been well known for over a century, the recent Flint water crisis has drawn renewed attention to the impacts of lead exposure on human health and development. This study considers connections to educational outcomes, asking whether population-level lead exposure in early childhood influences later academic achievement and racial achievement gaps. It assesses the effectiveness of recent local- and state-level lead hazard control programs in mitigating exposure and uses this source of exogenous variation in early childhood exposure across birth cohorts to draw inferences about the long-term effects of lead on mean student test scores. Our findings indicate that lead hazard control grants reduced lead poisoning incidents by over 70% of the baseline prevalence. And each one percentage point reduction in lead poisoning in early childhood translated to a growth of 0.04 standard deviations in student math test scores and 0.08 standard deviations in student reading scores. This same reduction in lead poisoning narrowed both the white-Hispanic math achievement gap and white-Hispanic reading achievement gap by 0.06 standard deviations, implying important downstream consequences for economic inequality.
KeywordsLead exposure Population intervention Early childhood health Economics of education Achievement gap
JEL ClassificationI18 I24 J1
The authors are grateful for the support from the Russell Sage Foundation, William T. Grant Foundation, and the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government. They would like to thank the anonymous reviewers for valuable comments and recommendations, as well as Sean Reardon, Steven Alvarado, participants at the RSF Workshop on Monitoring Educational Opportunity, and participants at the 2017 AEFP session on Special Education, Special Needs, and Health.
This study was funded by the Russell Sage Foundation and William T. Grant Foundation (Award #83-17-05). It was also supported by the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government.
Compliance with ethical standards
Conflict of interest
The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.
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