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Lead exposure and the 2010 achievement test scores of children in New York counties

Jillian C Strayhorn1* and Joseph M Strayhorn2

Author Affiliations

1 Undergraduate student, Cornell University College of Arts and Sciences, 147 Goldwin Smith Hall, Ithaca, NY 14853, USA

2 Department of Psychiatry, Drexel University College of Medicine, Allegheny Campus, 320 East North Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15212, USA

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Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health 2012, 6:4  doi:10.1186/1753-2000-6-4

Published: 23 January 2012



Lead is toxic to cognitive and behavioral functioning in children even at levels well below those producing physical symptoms. Continuing efforts in the U.S. since about the 1970s to reduce lead exposure in children have dramatically reduced the incidence of elevated blood lead levels (with elevated levels defined by the current U.S. Centers for Disease Control threshold of 10 μg/dl). The current study examines how much lead toxicity continues to impair the academic achievement of children of New York State, using 2010 test data.


This study relies on three sets of data published for the 57 New York counties outside New York City: school achievement data from the New York State Department of Education, data on incidence of elevated blood lead levels from the New York State Department of Health, and data on income from the U.S. Census Bureau. We studied third grade and eighth grade test scores in English Language Arts and mathematics. Using the county as the unit of analysis, we computed bivariate correlations and regression coefficients, with percent of children achieving at the lowest reported level as the dependent variable and the percent of preschoolers in the county with elevated blood lead levels as the independent variable. Then we repeated those analyses using partial correlations to control for possible confounding effects of family income, and using multiple regressions with income included.


The bivariate correlations between incidence of elevated lead and number of children in the lowest achievement group ranged between 0.38 and 0.47. The partial correlations ranged from 0.29 to 0.40. The regression coefficients, both bivariate and partial (both estimating the increase in percent of children in the lowest achievement group for every percent increase in the children with elevated blood lead levels), ranged from 0.52 to 1.31. All regression coefficients, when rounded to the nearest integer, were approximately 1. Thus, when the percent of children showing elevated lead increases by one percent, the percent of children in the lowest achievement group, according to the regression equations generated, also increases by about one percent. All associations were significant at the 0.05 level.


Despite public health advances, and despite the imprecision of measures, an association between the incidence of elevated blood lead and achievement in New York counties is still apparent, not attributable to confounding by income. Efforts to reduce lead exposure should persist with vigor.

Lead toxicity; lead exposure; achievement; school performance