The Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health, and IQ

The Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health, an authoritative review with well-over a dozen distinguished co-authors, is unusually forthright on the effect of pollution, most especially lead, on IQ. I think some of their numbers, especially in paragraph three, are too large but the direction is certainly correct.

Neurotoxic pollutants can reduce productivity by impairing children’s cognitive development. It is well documented that exposures to lead and other metals (eg, mercury and arsenic) reduce cognitive function, as measured by loss of IQ.168

Loss of cognitive function directly affects success at school and labour force participation and indirectly affects lifetime earnings. In the USA, millions of children were exposed to excessive concentrations of lead as the result of the widespread use of leaded gasoline from the 1920s until about 1980. At peak use in the 1970s, annual consumption of tetraethyl lead in gasoline was nearly 100 000 tonnes.

It has been estimated that the resulting epidemic of subclinical lead poisoning could have reduced the number of children with truly superior intelligence (IQ scores higher than 130 points) by more than 50% and, concurrently, caused a more than 50% increase in the number of children with IQ scores less than 70 (figure 14).265 Children with reduced cognitive function due to lead did poorly in school, required special education and other remedial programmes, and could not contribute fully to society when they became adults.

Grosse and colleagues 46 found that each IQ point lost to neurotoxic pollution results in a decrease in mean lifetime earnings of 1·76%. Salkever and colleagues 266 who extended this analysis to include the effects of IQ on schooling, found that a decrease in IQ of one percentage point lowers mean lifetime earnings by 2·38%. Studies from the 2000s using data from the USA 267,268 support earlier findings but suggest a detrimental effect on earnings of 1·1% per IQ point.269 The link between lead exposure and reduced IQ 46, 168 suggests that, in the USA, a 1 μg/dL increase in blood lead concentration decreases mean lifetime earnings by about 0·5%. A 2015 study in Chile 270 that followed up children who were exposed to lead at contaminated sites suggests much greater effects. A 2016 analysis by Muennig 271 argues that the economic losses that result from early-life exposure to lead include not only the costs resulting from cognitive impairment but also costs that result from the subsequent increased use of the social welfare services by these lead-exposed children, and their increased likelihood of incarceration.


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