Recently, in the Journal of Adolescent Health, an article appeared focusing on the link between lead poisoning and teen pregnancy. The purpose of the study was to analyze the effect of childhood lead poisoning on teen pregnancy and tobacco use. The authors of the article, Environmental Injustice: Childhood Lead Poisoning, Teen Pregnancy, and Tobacco by Sandra D. Lane, Ph.D., M.P.H et al., stated, “We hypothesize that among females, childhood lead poisoning is associated with repeat teen pregnancy and cigarette smoking.” As expected, social media took this article to mean that lead poisoning is a direct cause of teen pregnancy. This claim is a good example of the erroneous use of the terms “association” and “causation” when describing a possible outcome.
Why the confusion?
According to Webster’s Dictionary, association means: 1. the act of associating, 2. the state of being associated; while the word causation means: 1. the act of causing, 2. anything producing an effect. In simple terms, then, lead poisoning does not cause teen pregnancy but the two are associated.
In children ages six and under, lead poisoning negatively impacts the brain and causes permanent, long term damage. Neurotoxicity from lead poisoning affects not only cognitive capacity but the ability to plan, learn from prior experience, and creates impairments in executive functions. Dr. Lane’s article found that “experimental animal studies have demonstrated early lead exposure to be a risk for impulse control, failure to delay gratification, and an increased sensitivity to drug-seeking behavior.” These effects are irreversible.
Lead poisoning and impulsive behavior can lead teens to increased tobacco smoking, drug use, and sexual promiscuity. This is an association — not a causation.
Lead poisoning disproportionally affects children of color living in poverty more than white children. The likelihood stems from children living in dilapidated buildings and homes with lead-based paint and lead exposed soil. Windowsills and doorframes coated with lead-based paint emit a powdery dust and paint chips each time they are opened and closed. Also, contributing to the situation, as found in Flint, Michigan, lead-tainted water from old corroded pipes contribute to the risk of lead poisoning in children.
There are no safe levels of lead.
It’s important for the media to convey accurate reporting when it comes to lead poisoning and teen pregnancy. The link or association between lead poisoning and teen pregnancy is real but that doesn’t mean that lead poisoning causes pregnancies. It’s the unhealthy effects of lead poisoning on the brain that put children in harm’s way. The greatest lesson of Dr. Lane’s article remains that we need to continue to protect our children from being lead poisoned.
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