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Member Research and Reports

Member Research and Reports

Saint Louis Maps Suggest Link between Childhood Lead Exposure and Sexually Transmitted Infection Risk Later in Life

Building on growing evidence that exposure to lead during childhood does lasting harm to the brain’s ability to regulate risky and delinquent behavior, findings from the Saint Louis University College for Public Health and Social Justice suggest that high rates of gonorrhea and chlamydia in some areas of St. Louis City are causally linked to lead exposure.

Using data from the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, lead author Dr. Erik Nelson and his co-authors mapped the locations of almost 60,000 cases of elevated blood lead level in St. Louis children from 1996-2007, and compared them to rates of gonorrhea and chlamydia from 2011 by census tract.

Both rates varied substantially across census tracts, and areas with high rates of elevated blood lead level also had high rates of gonorrhea and chlamydia. To better understand this relationship and control for other neighborhood-level factors known to influence rates of sexually transmitted infections, the researchers accounted for poverty, access to condoms, availability of alcohol, and crime in their analysis.

“Even after we controlled for other factors and accounted for movement in and out of these areas, the strongest predictor of gonorrhea and chlamydia rates was elevated blood lead level,” said Dr. Nelson.

Past studies have shown that rates of teen pregnancy fell as lead was phased out of gasoline in the U.S. during the 1970s. “Our findings show a similar relationship between blood lead level and sexually transmitted infections,” Dr. Nelson added.

St. Louis City has consistently high rates of sexually transmitted infections, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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