Researchers at Princeton University and Brown University uncovered a link between exposure to lead in peoples’ younger years and criminal behaviour.
The material was a key component in paint during the 1960s and 1970s, before it was banned from house paint in 1976.
Leaded gasoline was also phased out between 1979 and 1986.
Links have been established between getting into trouble in school and going on to be involved in crime as adults.
Exposure to lead in preschool years significantly increases the likelihood children will be suspended or incarcerated during school, the study found.
They correlated falling rates of antisocial behaviour with the decline in lead paint used over the past few decades.
Researchers discovered children aged up to six-years-old who had been exposed to lead showed displayed more aggressive behaviour, had trouble paying attention and exhibited poorer thinking skills and impulse control.
These traits can often lead to antisocial and then criminal behaviour as adults.
Studies found that the significant drop in lead exposure could be behind the dramatic 90 per cent drop in US crime rate from the mid-1990s onwards.
Princeton’s Janet Currie and Anna Aizer, a professor of economics and public policy at Brown, based their study on data from 120,000 children born in Rhode Island.
Published in the National Bureau of Economic Research, Ms Currie said: “Rhode Island is an ideal place to study the effects of lead because of the state’s aggressive lead screening program.”
Children in that state are usually screen at least once by the time they are 18 months old, and on average at least three times by age six.
They found that lead exposure had a powerful and significant effect on the likelihood of children who were exposed to lead being incarcerated at school.
A one-unit increase in blood lead levels – measured in units of millionths of a gram per each tenth of a litre of blood – increased the probability a child would be suspended from school by 6.4 to 9.3 per cent.
And in boys they found a one-unit increase in blood lead levels raised the probability of incarceration by 27 to 74 per cent.
Ms Currie said: “Children who have been suspended are ten times more likely to be involved in criminal activity as adults.
“Our results support the hypothesis that reductions in blood lead levels may have been responsible for a significant part of the observed decrease in antisocial behaviour among youths and young adults in recent decades.”
In addition, they also recognised children who are incarcerated are less likely to graduate from high school.
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