Poison in the Blood

Public health officials have devoted considerable effort to understanding the lethal biochemistry of pediatric lead poisoning. Now medical researchers from Brown University are beginning to clarify the family dynamics of that distressing phenomenon. Toxic lead, it turns out, is less likely to end up in a child’s bloodstream if that child lives with a married mother and father. “Childhood lead exposure,” point out the Brown team of researchers, “has been associated with adverse health effects that persist into adulthood, including severe cognitive defects.” The magnitude and duration of such effects make lead exposure “a pressing health issue for children,” so necessitating efforts to identify the circumstances that put children at risk. To that end, the Brown scholars examined social and medical data collected for 7,547 children born in Providence, Rhode Island, between January 1, 1997, and November 7, 2001. The Brown scholars discern in their data clear evidence that prenatal care protects against lead poisoning. “Children whose mothers received inadequate prenatal care,” the Brown team concludes, “are at risk for having elevated B[lood]L[ead]L[evel]s in childhood.” Though prenatal care in and of itself appears to reduce the likelihood of lead poisoning, the researchers suggest that “prenatal care may be a proxy for the breadth and depth of a mother’s social support.” In this context, the researchers acknowledge that the women who receive adequate prenatal care typically wear a wedding ring. “These women [who receive adequate prenatal care],” remark the researchers, “tend to be married and receive social and emotional support from the infant’s father during pregnancy.” Keeping poison out of young children’s lives turns out to be, in part, a matter of keeping their fathers in their lives. (Anna Greene, Rachel Morello-Frosch, and Edmond D. Shenassa, “Inadequate Prenatal Care and Elevated Blo
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