The impact of low-level lead toxicity on school performance among children in the Chicago Public Schools: A population-based retrospective cohort study

Anne Evens*, Daniel Hryhorczuk, Bruce P. Lanphear, Kristin M. Rankin, Dan A. Lewis, Linda Forst, Deborah Rosenberg

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

99 Scopus citations


Background: Environmental lead exposure poses a risk to educational performance, especially among poor, urban children. Previous studies found low-level lead exposure was a risk factor for diminished academic abilities, however, this study is distinct because of the very large sample size and because it controlled for very low birth weight and early preterm birth-two factors closely associated with lower academic performance. In this study we examined the association between lead concentration in whole blood (B-Pb) of Chicago Public School (CPS) children and their performance on the 3rd grade Illinois Standard Achievement Tests (ISAT) reading and math scores. Methods: We examined 58,650 children born in Chicago between 1994 and 1998 who were tested for blood lead concentration between birth and 2006 and enrolled in the 3rd grade at a CPS school between 2003 and 2006. We linked the Chicago birth registry, the Chicago Blood Lead Registry, and 3rd grade ISAT scores to examine associations between B-Pb and school performance. Results: After adjusting for other predictors of school performance including poverty, race/ethnicity, gender, maternal education and very low birth weight or preterm-birth, we found that B-Pbs below 10 μg/dL were inversely associated with reading and math scores in 3rd grade children. For a 5 μg/dL increase in B-Pb, the risk of failing increased by 32% for reading (RR = 1.32, 95%CI = 1.26, 1.39) and math (RR = 1.32, 95%CI = 1.26, 1.39). The effect of lead on reading was non-linear with steeper failure rates at lower B-Pbs. We estimated that 13% of reading failure and 14.8% of math failure can be attributed to exposure to blood lead concentrations of 5 to 9 vs. 0 to 4 μg/dL in Chicago school children. Conclusions: Early childhood lead exposure is associated with poorer achievement on standardized reading and math tests in the third grade, even at very low B-Pbs. Preventing lead exposure in early childhood is critical to improving school performance.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number21
JournalEnvironmental Health: A Global Access Science Source
Issue number1
StatePublished - Apr 7 2015


  • Blood lead concentration
  • Health disparities
  • Lead poisoning
  • School performance
  • Standardized tests
  • Urban lead exposure

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health
  • Health, Toxicology and Mutagenesis


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