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Lead exposure during childhood may impact adults' personalities, study finds

These chemicals may have long-term effects on consumers’ development

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Photo (c) carterdayne - Getty Images
A new study conducted by researchers from the University of Texas at Austin explored how exposure to lead during childhood may impact consumers’ personality development. According to their findings, more exposure to the element can lead to behavioral shifts that affect overall well-being.

“Links between lead exposure and personality traits are quite impactful, because we take out personalities with us everywhere,” said researcher Ted Schwaba. “Even a small negative effect of lead on personality traits, when you aggregate it across millions of people and all the daily decisions and behaviors that our personality influences, can have really massive effects on well-being, productivity, and longevity.” 

The long-term effects of lead exposure

For the study, the researchers compared responses from personality surveys given to consumers across the country with data from the Environmental Protection Agency on levels of lead exposure. The information on lead exposure spanned decades, allowing the researchers to understand the long-term impacts of how the chemical affects personality. 

Ultimately, the team learned that consumers who were exposed to the highest levels of lead during childhood were likely to feel the effects in their adult personalities. They noticed the biggest changes to participants’ agreeableness, neuroticism, and conscientiousness, all of which are key components to how consumers behave, interact, and think. 

“These three traits -- conscientiousness, agreeableness and low neuroticism -- make up a large part of what we would consider a mature, psychologically healthy personality and are strong predictors of our success or failure in relationships and at work,” Schwaba said. “Normally, across the lifespan, people become more conscientious and agreeable, and less neurotic.” 

The researchers explained that topsoil, groundwater, and pipes remain the biggest sources of lead exposure across the country. They hope these findings highlight the need for lower levels of lead across the country. 

“For a long time, we’ve known lead exposure is harmful, but each new wave of research seems to identify new ways in which lead exposure harms society,” said Schwaba. “From an economic standpoint, from a social justice standpoint, or really any way you look at it, it’s incredibly important to limit lead exposure as much as possible.”

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