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Low school test scores linked to racial segregation and lead exposure in North Carolina: Structural racism and environmental contamination team up to hold children back, study finds

Black children who have been exposed to the metal lead have lower test scores than their peers, and this effect is exacerbated for those who live in racially segregated neighborhoods, according to research led by a Duke environmental epidemiologist.

The findings appear the week of August 8 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The researchers linked birth data, blood lead levels and fourth grade end-of-grade test scores for more than 25,000 children living in North Carolina to investigate how childhood lead exposure and neighborhood racial residential segregation affect early childhood educational outcomes.

“Our study concluded that it’s not just about where lead exposure is highest — that’s just one piece of the puzzle,” said Mercedes A. Bravo, PhD, assistant research professor at the Duke Global Health Institute and first author on the paper.

“Black children are more likely to be exposed to lead and are also more likely to live in racially segregated, predominantly Black neighborhoods,” Bravo said. “When these two exposures co-occur, children had worse than expected scores.”

Understanding how structural racism and environmental contamination, such as lead exposure, can combine to affect children’s health and development can help researchers, community stakeholders and public health departments identify and target the most vulnerable individuals and communities, Bravo explained.

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