July 28, 2021 – Young children living in Massachusetts communities with higher rates of firearm licensure were significantly more likely to have dangerously high levels of lead in their blood compared to children living in communities with fewer gun licenses, according to a new study from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
The study was published July 9, 2021, in Environmental Research. Lead author was Christian Hoover, a second-year MPH-65 student in health policy.
“We found that above other exposure sources—lead in paint, lead in water, economic variables that are traditionally associated with greater risk of lead exposure—the presence of firearms in a community was the highest risk factor for lead exposure in children,” said Hoover. “We all understand how dangerous lead is and we’ve worked to overcome the risks of lead by getting rid of it in paint and in gasoline. We like to think that our children are safe from lead. But I think this finding opens that case up again.”
Exposure to lead has been linked with cognitive disabilities, behavior problems, seizures, anemia, renal failure, and lethal brain swelling in children.
The study looked at data on firearm licensure—the best available proxy for firearm ownership and use—from 351 Massachusetts sub-counties from the state’s Department of Criminal Justice Information Services, along with data on pediatric blood lead levels from the state’s Bureau of Environmental Health. The researchers found that children living in sub-counties with the most firearm licensures were over two times more likely to have elevated blood lead levels than children in communities with the fewest firearm licensures.
The authors speculated that firearm-related tracking may be driving the high pediatric blood lead levels. Tracking occurs when someone uses a firearm, gets lead particles on their skin or clothes, then inadvertently tracks the particles into their car or their home.
Previous studies have shown that people who work in certain industries, such as at smelting factories, can unintentionally track lead dust into their homes, Hoover noted. For example, a 2018 study found that personal items that workers at a lead-oxide facility carried between work and home, such as books and phones, had lead dust on them, resulting in lead exposure among their families.
Lead tracking from owning and using firearms has been well-documented for nearly two decades, but there are no federal or state regulations aimed at reducing or preventing it, the authors wrote. And until now, there hasn’t been research looking at whether such tracking could be harming children.
Hoover hopes that the new study—and future studies analyzing larger datasets, over longer periods of time—will increase awareness of how lead dust from firearm use can impact children. In the meantime, he said that people who use firearms and are concerned about lead exposure can wear a mask to protect themselves, and can make sure to change their clothes and shoes and bathe before interacting with children.
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