Children living in low-income neighborhoods, often exposed to unsafe levels of pollution, may also face additional risk from the stress of growing up in poverty, according to a new body of research. Such children may actually be more biologically susceptible to contaminants such as lead and car exhaust, even at low levels, because dealing with financial strain, racial tensions, and high crime rates may wear down their immunity and disrupt hormones.
“This type of stress can have negative, lasting effects on key systems in the body,” said Rosalind Wright, associate professor in the Department of Environmental Health, in a June 6, 2012 Environmental Health News article. “It’s like having the fight or flight response turned on all the time.”
Robert Wright, also an associate professor in the Department of Environmental Health and Rosalind Wright’s husband, told EHN that “the toxicity of lead may be stronger in a child also exposed to the stress of poverty.” Lead exposure has been linked with reduced IQs, attention problems, and aggressive behavior.
The EHN article also quoted a May 4, 2011 American Journal of Public Health report, co-authored by Joel Schwartz, HSPH professor of environmental epidemiology, and David Bellinger, professor in HSPH’s Department of Environmental Health, and Johns Hopkins’ Thomas Glass, that said that increased risks due to social status are “a critically important but neglected area within risk assessment, and should be incorporated in the future.”