Lead Exposure Reduces Academic Performance: Intensity, Duration, and Nutrition Matter
We leverage a natural experiment, where a large national automotive racing organization switched from leaded to unleaded fuel, to study how ambient lead exposure and nutrition impact learning in elementary school. The average race emitted more than 10 kilograms of lead — a quantity similar to the annual emissions of an airport or a median lead-emitting industrial facility in the United States. Increased levels and duration of exposure to lead negatively affect academic performance, shift the entire academic performance distribution, and negatively impact both younger and older children. We provide quasi-experimental evidence linking measured quantities of lead emissions to decreased test scores, information essential for policies addressing ambient lead and emission sources. Exposure to 10 additional kilograms of lead emissions reduces standardized test scores by 0.07 standard deviations. This corresponds to an average income reduction of $9,000 per treated student in present value terms, an effect of similar magnitude as improving teacher value added by one standard deviation, reducing class size by 10 students, or increasing school spending per pupil by $2,500. The marginal impacts of lead are larger in impoverished, non-white counties, and among students with greater duration of exposure, even after controlling for total exposure. Factors correlated with better nutrition — most notably consumption of calcium-rich foods like milk — help mitigate the link between lead exposure and reduced educational outcomes. These results show that improved child nutrition can help combat the negative effects of lead, addressing several prominent social issues including racial test gaps, human capital formation across income groups, and disparities in regional environmental justice.
Hollingsworth: O'Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs, Indiana University. Huang: Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, Cornell University. Rudik: Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, Cornell University. Sanders: Department of Policy Analysis and Management, Cornell University, and National Bureau of Economic Research. We thank Ludovica Gazze, Kevin Schnepel, Barton Willage, and seminar participants at Indiana University and the University of Tennessee for comments. Disclaimer: Researcher(s) own analyses calculated (or derived) based in part on data from The Nielsen Company (US), LLC and marketing databases provided through the Nielsen Datasets at the Kilts Center for Marketing Data Center at The University of Chicago Booth School of Business. The conclusions drawn from the Nielsen data are those of the researcher(s) and do not reflect the views of Nielsen. Nielsen is not responsible for, had no role in, and was not involved in analyzing and preparing the results reported herein. The views expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Bureau of Economic Research.