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Pregnant woman.

Here's another possible reason to reduce exposure to toxic materials: While national experts hail better choices as a reason for lower teen pregnancy rates, some research indicates that efforts to reduce youthful exposure to lead may have helped, as well.

In a paper just released by the National Bureau of Economic Research, Jessica Wolpaw Reyes, an associate professor of economics at Amherst College, makes the case that reducing the amount of lead in teens' blood reduces the likelihood of pregnancy by age 17 — and offers even greater reduction in the chance a teenager will be pregnant by age 19.

Her analysis, Reyes wrote, "indicates that higher childhood lead exposure is associated with substantial adverse behavioral consequences from childhood through young adulthood." Among the behavior problems are teen pregnancy, teenage aggressive behavior and teenage criminal behavior. ... "This evidence suggests that, by increasing aggression and other behavior problems, even moderate exposure to lead in early childhood can have substantial and persistent adverse effects on individual behavior."

Concerted efforts to reduce exposure to lead, including The Lead Contamination and Control Act of 1988 and phasing out of gasoline as part of the later Clean Air Act, have coincided with reductions in teen births (down one-fifth in the 1990s) and teen crime (down one-third), according to Reyes' analysis.

"The forgoing results suggest that lead — and other environmental toxicants that impair behavior — may be missing links in social scientists' explanation of social behavior," Reyes wrote. "Social problems may be, to some degree, rooted in environmental problems. As a consequence, environmental or public health policy aimed at reducing exposure to environmental toxicants may be effective in reducing the social and economic costs associated with child behavior problems, teen pregnancy, aggression and crime."

The BabyCenter website notes that "lead poisoning has declined in the United States over the past couple of decades due to efforts to reduce lead contamination, prevent exposure, and improve awareness of the danger. Still, close to half a million children test positively for lead poisoning each year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control."

The Mayo Clinic said "even small amounts of lead can cause serious health problems. Children under the age of 6 are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning, which can severely affect mental and physical development. At very high levels, lead poisoning can be fatal."

The most common sources of lead contamination are lead-based paints (no longer sold) and lead-tainted dust in old buildings, but it can also be found in soil, water and air, it said.

"It's worth reflecting on the ways in which the political system is rigged to congenitally under-regulate these kind of health hazards," opines Vox's Matthew Yglesias. "If you, as a politician, take a stand that goes against the financial interests of some group of incumbent industries, your reward is that significant social ills are alleviated … 15 to 20 years after your proposal is phased into place. No governor or president — and very few senior legislators — sticks around long enough to claim credit for these things."

Email: lois@deseretnews.com, Twitter: Loisco