Cognitive Disparities, Lead Plumbing, and Water Chemistry: Intelligence Test Scores and Exposure to Water-Borne Lead Among World War Two U.S. Army Enlistees

Joseph P. Ferrie, Karen Rolf, Werner Troesken

NBER Working Paper No. 17161
Issued in June 2011
NBER Program(s):   DAE   HE

Assessing the impact of lead exposure is difficult if individuals select on the basis of their characteristics into environments with different exposure levels. We address this issue with data from when the dangers of lead exposure were still largely unknown, using new evidence on intelligence test scores for male World War Two U.S. Army enlistees linked to the households where they resided in 1930. Higher exposure to water-borne lead (proxied by urban residence and low water pH levels) was associated with lower test scores: going from pH 6 to pH 5.5, scores fell 5 points (1/4 standard deviation). A longer time exposed led to a more severe effect. The ubiquity of lead in urban water systems at this time and uncertainty regarding its impact mean these effects are unlikely to have resulted from selection into locations with different levels of exposure.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w17161

Published: “Cogn iti ve Dis par iti e s, Le ad P lumpin g, an d Wa te r Ch e mist r y: P r ior Exposur e to W ate r - Bor ne Le ad an d In te lli ge nc e Te st Sc or e s A mon g Wor ld W ar Two Ar my En lis te e s,” Econom ics and Hu ma n Bi ol ogy , vol . 10, n o. 1 ( Jan uar y 201 2): 98- 112. Co-a uthor s: J ose ph P. Fe r r ie (Nor th we ste r n Un ive r sity ) a nd Ka r e n Rolf (U ni ve r sity of Ne br aska at Oma ha ).

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