What Does Lead-Tainted Water Have to Do With Teen Delinquency in NC? A Lot, New Study Finds.

A new study from Duke University links tainted well water to teen delinquency. (Shutterstock)

By Michael McElroy

February 7, 2022

The risk isn’t borne equally. Black children living below the poverty line are twice as likely to have elevated lead levels thanks to polluted water. 

The dangers that lead poses to children is well known, but a new study shows just how long-lasting the threat can be. 

Drinking lead-tainted well water in early childhood can increase the risk of teenage delinquency, the study co-authored by Duke researchers found.  

Children who get their water from private wells have higher blood lead levels, the study said, and a more than 20% higher risk of being reported for any delinquency in their teens. There is also a 38% increased risk of being charged with a felony or other serious crimes, the study added. 

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Previous studies have found Black children living below the poverty line are twice as likely to have elevated lead levels in their blood as white and Latino children.

The study’s authors noted that structural racism has meant young Black children are at greater risk of lead poisoning, as well as increased chances of being shunted into the criminal justice system than their white peers. They acknowledged their inability to fully control for these factors in the study.

The study recommended building new community water systems for areas depending on lead-tainted well water, or extending existing systems to these areas and providing them with household water filters.

Such filters, which cost about $100, can remove 98% of lead from private wells, researchers said.

No level of lead is considered safe in drinking water, and it is particularly harmful to babies and young children. It affects brain development and can lead to cognitive impairment and learning delays.  

Last November, Congress passed President Biden’s infrastructure plan, which includes $15 billion for removing lead pipes and other service lines across the country. But while lead pipes are the biggest source of exposure across the country, private well water, the Duke study said, “is an underrecognized” risk.

Thirteen percent of homes in the United states rely on unregulated private wells, the study said. 

The study looked at 20 years worth of health data, well-water samples and juvenile delinquency records tied to more than 13,500 children in Wake County. 

“This research highlights the need to recognize the risks to children relying on private well water and for new programs to ensure they have access to clean drinking water. Failing to do so imposes burdens not just on the affected children and their families but also on society at large,” Jackie MacDonald Gibson, the lead author of the study and a chair at the IU School of Public Health-Bloomington, said in a news release. 


  • Michael McElroy

    Michael McElroy is Cardinal & Pine's political correspondent. He is an adjunct instructor at UNC-Chapel Hill's Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and a former editor at The New York Times.

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