Lead exposure in NZ cities linked to lower IQ - report

Childhood exposure to high levels of lead in New Zealand cities in the 1970s and 1980s has been linked to lower IQ and socio-economic status in adulthood.

The effects are "slight but significant", says a paper published in The Journal of the American Medical Association.

Researchers used data from Otago University's Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study, which has been tracking 1000 people born in 1972 and 1973.

About half of the participants were lead-tested when they were 11.

Those with more than 10 micrograms of lead per decilitre of blood at that age had IQs at age 38 that were on average 4.25 points lower than their less lead-exposed peers.

They were also found to have lost IQ points relative to their own childhood scores.

The mean blood-lead level of the children at age 11 was 10.99mcg per decilitre.

Ninety-four percent had levels greater than 5mcg per decilitre, at which the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention now recommends a public-health intervention.

The paper's senior author, Dunedin Study associate director Professor Terrie Moffitt, of Duke University in North Carolina, says the data came from an era when such high lead levels were viewed as normal.

When the Dunedin children were tested, only a level in excess of 35mcg per decilitre signalled a need for medical investigation.

"This research shows how far-sighted New Zealand was when the country banned leaded petrol in 1996," Prof Moffit said.

"Lead exposure is very rare in Kiwi children today. But the findings suggest the importance of keeping up our vigilance against other environmental pollutants."

The researchers also compared changes in social standing using the New Zealand Socio-economic Index.

Children whose lead levels were over 10mcg per decilitre attained occupations with socio-economic status levels lower than those of their parents.

There were 121 lead absorption notifications in 2015, of which seven were children under 15 years.

Common causes of lead exposure:

  • Occupational use, including battery manufacture
  • Home renovations, stripping old lead paint
  • Regular attendance at indoor shooting clubs
  • Smelting bullets or smelting weights for diving and fishing
  • Consuming ayurvedic medicine, an ancient Indian herbal remedy containing heavy metals

Symptoms of lead absorption:

  • Stomach upsets
  • Insomnia
  • Constipation
  • Loss of appetite
  • Difficulty in remembering things

Public health experts say lead-absorption is under-reported as people often don't recognise the symptoms.

If you have concerns about lead exposure, consult your GP.

NZN / Newshub.