There’s actually been a small silver lining to our newfound anxiety over the lead content in balsamic vinegar: it’s got us thinking about education spending in a new way. How’s that? Well, upon learning that our favorite salad-dressing base might well harm Microkhan Jr.’s neural health, we started thumbing through the literature on lead poisoning’s effects on IQ scores. Once a body starts doing that, all roads inevitably lead to this 2003 study from the New England Journal of Medicine. Its troubling conclusion is that even modest concentrations of lead in a young child’s blood can reduce IQ by an average of 7.4 points—and, presumably, far more if the poisoning is more acute.
The good news, of course, is that our nation has done an admirable job of getting rid of lead over the past several decades—not a perfect job, by any means, but there’s little doubt that lead poisoning has become increasingly rare. There’s still work to be done, and it will cost—this study (PDF) estimates that it costs an average of $7,000 to render an American dwelling unit lead-free. But the author also points out that the long-term economic returns are well worth the investment, since smarter kids wind up generating more valuable economic activity once they hit the work force.
And that got us wondering: what if the efforts of UNESCO and others to increase primary-school spending are misplaced? What if the education community’s first priority shouldn’t be getting developing nations to reach the OECD average in per-pupil outlays, but rather the de-leading of environments?
To answer the question, we need to know more about how much additional primary-school spending ends up boosting a child’s IQ—in other words, how much IQ bang we get for the each buck. This is something we’ve yet to see addressed to our satisfaction in peer-reviewed studies. (For the record, we’re well-convinced that early education makes a big difference, but that seems to be less of a priority for the likes of UNESCO.)
So, what if nations shifted a significant share of their finite education resources away from per-pupil spending in primary schools, and toward fresh coats of lead-free paint (not to mention the enforcement of tougher environmental regulations? We have no idea how such a shift would fly politically, since no one wants to be known as the leader who took money from the kids. But from a far-sighted point of view, such a maneuver might actually do wonders for a country’s long-term economic prospects.