As expected, the participants in the study who had low blood levels as children had an adult IQ that was as high as when they were kids.
Dr Nick Wilson, of the University of Otago's Department of Public Health in Wellington, said the oil industry, and specifically Associated Octel which supplied the lead added to New Zealand petrol, should take some of the blame for the damage caused before lead was banned from being added to petrol in 1996.
Study participants are part of a life-long examination of more than 1,000 people born in Dunedin, New Zealand in 1972 and 1973.
When the kids were 11 years old, researchers tested their blood for lead.
Childhood blood lead level was associated with lower adult IQ scores almost three decades later, reflecting cognitive decline following childhood lead exposure.
Exposure to leaded petrol as a child leads to a lower IQ, a new study has found.
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In all, 94 per cent of the tested children were found to have blood-lead levels greater than five micrograms per decilitre, the level at which the United States' Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now recommends a public health intervention.
In 1984, when the Dunedin children were tested, only a lead level in excess of 35 micrograms per decilitre signalled a need for medical investigation.
The latest research "underscores the story of lead is not over", she said, adding that although lead has always been banned in gasoline, paint and most plumbing fixtures, plenty of threats remain in the United States and particularly in other parts of the world. Such test is created to be a rough indicator of lead exposure in the months before the blood is drawn and tested.
In justifying their research, the team directly invoked the Flint crisis, which saw the town in MI deal with lead contamination (and outbreaks of Legionnaires' disease) following a cost-cutting change in their drinking water source and subsequent poor water treatment in 2014.
BICHELL: In other words, lead exposure seemed to continue to harm these people for decades after their childhoods. Lead exposure is far more damaging for children because their brains are still developing.
The study was published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), and researchers wrote that there is a link between lead exposure as a child and some issues in adulthood related to low cognitive abilities and socioeconomic status.
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The study also compared changes in social standing using the New Zealand Socioeconomic Index, which plots families on a six-point scale.
Lead is a powerful neurotoxin that can accumulate in a child's bloodstream and settle in the bones, teeth and soft tissues.
Breathing in leaded gas fumes, or playing with soil near busy roads, could heighten lead exposure since dust particles containing lead comes from auto tailpipes, the researchers said.
"Regardless of where you start in life, lead is going to exert a downward pull", said Avshalom Caspi, Edward M. Arnett Professor of psychology & neuroscience and psychiatry & behavioral sciences at Duke, who is a co-author on the paper. "If everyone takes a hit from environmental pollutants, society as a whole suffers". The authors noted that 259 participants had blood lead levels above the worldwide level of concern (10 µg/dL) and 531 participants had blood lead levels above the current reference value of 5 µg/dL.
Overall, 1,007 participants were still alive at age 38 years and 56% (n=565) were tested for lead levels at age 11.
They also attained occupations with a lower socioeconomic status than those of their parents.
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And when lead gets into a human body, it can mess with brain development, decades of research has shown.