Professor of Economics Jessica Wolpaw Reyes ’94 was a Ph.D. student at Harvard in the late 1990s when she began researching the societal effects of childhood lead exposure. She was also an expectant mother “living in a really old house.”
“I started reading the literature on lead, and I realized lead was actually really, really bad, which is not news to most people in the public health community but was news to me,” she says. “That’s how I got started on this long search for data.”
The patterns Reyes has uncovered during her long search drew new attention this year, when both the state’s governor and President Obama declared a state of emergency in Flint, Mich. The city had switched two years ago from using treated water from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to using water from the Flint River. In addition to its visible pollutants, the corrosive properties of the river water started leaching lead out of aging pipes and into residents’ sinks and bathtubs. In 2015, researchers found that the percentage of young children with elevated levels of lead in their blood had more than doubled in certain areas of the city—mostly socioeconomically disadvantaged areas.
A paper she wrote on Massachusetts schoolchildren argued that “public health policy that reduced childhood lead levels in the 1990s was responsible for modest but statistically significant improvements in test performance in th 2000s,” especially in low-income areas. Most recently, she’s found that “even moderate exposure to lead in early childhood” can increase the likelihood of teen pregnancy, criminal activity and other “antisocial and risky behavior.”
Though the effects will vary from person to person, Reyes’ research suggests that Flint’s lead-exposed children will, on average, struggle more with academic performance, impulsivity and aggression throughout their lives. And, she points out, the problem isn’t confined to Flint: there are numerous places where lead levels are even higher.
Luckily, her research also shows that lead-related policy interventions can be very effective—and relatively inexpensive. She estimates, for instance, that for only $100 per child, Massachusetts’ lead policies have reduced the failure rate on a major standardized test by 2 percentage points. Early childhood education programs such as Head Start, she says, can help compensate for the damage lead does to toddlers’ brain development.
Reyes is part of the Massachusetts Governor’s Advisory Committee for th Lead Poisoning Prevention Program. At Amherst, she’s recently taught “Health Economics and Policy” and served on the faculty of the environmental studies major. Now she’s on sabbatical, researching links between lead mining, homicide and infant mortality in 19th-century Britain.