Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

Paint, Not Books

November 19th, 2009 · 6 Comments

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.

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6 Comments so far ↓

  • captured shadow

    Did you catch this in the WP?http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/07/07/AR2007070701073.html
    One economist is trying to show a link in lead poisoning and crime which might be as important as lead and IQ. I didn’t see the original journal articles so I don’t know if his methods are any good.

    I think most of the school support is through UNICEF and UNDP with the portfolio of UNESCO being reduced due to their relatively bad reputation.

    If the theoretical choice is to ban lead, then let the child learn on their own, or have school, but all the kids are poisoned with lead, it is a pretty bad situation. Kind of like selling your shelter to pay for food. Lead reduction though might have a greater long term benefit than say adding a music program at the high school level.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    Thanks for the link to the WaPo piece, which I only vaguely remember. I’m somewhat convinced, though I’d like to know how they control for other factors (e.g. poverty). That’s not clear from the article.

    I don’t think it has to be an either/or choice, but I would like to dive deeper and see the IQ yield per dollar for money spent on primary school vs. lead abatement. In other words, if a nation decides to spend an extra $1,000 per child at the primary level, will that have better IQ benefits than putting that money into reducing lead levels?

    Didn’t realize that UNESCO had such a bad rep. Any particular reason? Some scandal about which I’m unaware? Or just general bureaucratic bumbling?

  • captured shadow

    General bumbling seems to have hurt UNESCO.

    http://www.nytimes.com/1999/10/20/news/20iht-unesco.2.t_0.html
    I am not really sure what the root causes might be.

    I also wonder if IQ is really that useful as a measure of the efficacy of primary school. It seems to me that a relatively low IQ but being literate, would give you a better shot at success than being normal IQ and illiterate. But like you, I wonder if, at the margins, lead would be a better focus. Seems like the $1000 in reducing lead effects would pay off better than a $1000 computer and software, but maybe not as much as reducing the class size from say 28 students per class to 14 students per class.

  • jackal

    Similarly, there’s the issue of iodine deficiency. I think the effect there can be even starker (10-20 points of IQ or more if you don’t get iodine as a kid) — there have been many projects recently specifically on eliminating the negative consequences of iodine deficiency in vulnerable populations. It’s probably much easier than eliminating lead poisoning — a very cheap supplement.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @captured shadow: Thanks for the UNESCO link. Agreed that much depends on how the money’s spent at the primary level. But there’s still so much we don’t know about what works, and what doesn’t.

    @jackal: Indeed. The whole micronutrients movement is fascinating–some of it strikes me as brilliant, but I’d wager that some of the supplements will turn out to be ineffectual. As above, still so much we don’t know on the link between nutrition and cognitive development…

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