Childhood uptake of lead from exposure to atmospheric leaded gasoline in the United States has been studied using mainly blood lead levels. Since reliable blood lead techniques were used only after the peak use of leaded gasoline, the prior exposure history is unclear. The well-documented decline in blood lead levels after the mid-1970s could represent the continuation of a historic steady decline in exposure from many sources. Alternatively, the post-1970s decline might represent the declining phase of a unimodal rise and fall corresponding closely to usage of leaded gasoline. To assess these possibilities, lead concentration and 207Pb/206Pb isotope ratios were measured in the enamel of permanent molar teeth formed between 1936 and 1993 in mainly African-American donors who grew up in the Cleveland area. Tooth enamel preserves the lead concentration and isotope ratio that prevails during tooth formation. Historical trends in enamel lead concentration were significantly correlated with surrogates of atmospheric lead exposure: lead in sediments of two dated Lake Erie cores, and lead consumed in gasoline. About two-thirds of the total lead uptake into enamel in this period was attributable to leaded gasoline, and the remainder to other sources (e.g. paint). Enamel 207Pb/206Pb isotope ratios were similar to those of one lake sediment. Multivariate analysis revealed significant correlation in neighborhoods with higher levels of traffic, and including lake sediment data, accounted for 53% of the variation in enamel lead levels. Enamel lead concentration was highly correlated with reported African-American childhood blood levels. The extrapolated peak level of 48microg/dL (range 40 to 63) is associated with clinical and behavioral impairments, which may have implications for adults who were children during the peak gasoline lead exposure. In sum, leaded gasoline emission was the predominant source of lead exposure of African-American Cleveland children during the latter two-thirds of the 20th century.
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