NEW research has linked exposure to high levels of lead pollution to behavioural problems among teenagers .
A researcher says his studies of burglars and other young offenders showed many had high lead levels in their bodies.
The research will open up a whole new area of concern about lead pollution, which has already been linked to lowering IQ levels.
''Our work is at a very early stage, but we believe there is a correlation between lead and behaviour,'' said Dr Neil Ward, an environmental chemist at Surrey University. ''This is a very exciting area and we need funding to pay for more research, although behaviour is a very, very complex phenomenon and is not just chemical.''
His work follows a report that estimated that the intelligence of one in 10 British children under six had been diminished by exposure to lead. Last autumn the Independent on Sunday revealed the research by Dr Erik Millstone of the Science Policy Research Unit at Sussex University. It demonstrated the widespread danger from old lead paint and lead pipes.
Dr Ward carried out research into children with behavioural problems aged eight to 11 and on two sets of young offenders, aged 16 to 19, who were convicted of a range of offences including aggravated burglary.
Many of those with behavioural problems were found to have high blood- lead levels.
Around 100 children and teenagers were involved. Only 12 were used in the second study of teenagers, which Dr Ward said was the most important and which he hopes to publish in the Journal of Nutritional and Environmental Medicine later this year.
Dr Ward looked at lead levels as part of a study into the effect of nutrition on behaviour. He said he was aware of only one researcher who had tried to show a link between behaviour and lead, and does not believe the research, conducted in America, established as strong a correlation as his work has.
He plans to release full details when the final piece of research is published.
There is still concern about lead pollution in Britain despite the introduction of unleaded petrol. Lead levels have built up for years in many areas and the pollution that already existed will remain in the environment for decades to come.
Dr Ward said there were problems where homes were served by lead water pipes, and lead paint in older houses could also be exposed by people stripping down woodwork.
Lead levels have built up for years near main roads because of leaded petrol, and there are fears that dust containing lead can get into houses nearby and also contaminate food grown on nearby agricultural land.
Dr Damien Downing, editor of the journal, said: ''If this is proved I would like to think it would give policy makers something to think about; clearly it emphasises just how poisonous lead is.''
Professor John Henry, a consultant for 15 years with the National Poisons Unit, said: ''This observation is fascinating; it must be followed up. I have not heard of anything like this in Britain or abroad. ''
There are still groups of people with high levels of lead in their bodies, despite the reduction of lead in the environment following the banning of lead in paint and the use of unleaded petrol, he said.
He added that other studies needed to be done as the link could be a coincidence - lead levels could be higher because the children involved were hyperactive and prone to behavioural problems in the first place, and one effect of hyperactivity is to chew paint work, which could contain lead.
Professor Donald Barltrop, Professor of Child Health at Imperial College, London, said: ''This is the first time I have heard of recent work on this link in this country.''
Dr Erik Millstone said he could not comment in detail on the possible link between lead and behaviour, as he had not seen Dr Ward's research, but he was eager to read the papers. He said Dr Ward's work was always of a high quality, and there was a lot of research showing that high lead levels could harm intelligence.
But Dr David Wilson of the Lead Development Association, which represents the lead industry, said: ''Research like this has its place, but it is an issue of decreasing significance as exposure is trailing away.''
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies