Childhood lead exposure has devastating lifelong consequences, as even low-level exposure stunts intelligence and leads to delinquent behavior. However, these consequences may be more extensive than previously thought because childhood lead exposure may adversely affect normal-range personality traits.

In a preregistered investigation, we tested this hypothesis by linking historic atmospheric lead data from 269 US counties and 37 European nations to personality questionnaire data from over 1.5 million people who grew up in these areas. Adjusting for age and socioeconomic status, US adults who grew up in counties with higher atmospheric lead levels had less adaptive personality profiles: they were less agreeable and conscientious and, among younger participants, more neurotic.

Next, we utilized a natural experiment, the removal of leaded gasoline because of the 1970 Clean Air Act, to test whether lead exposure caused these personality differences. Participants born after atmospheric lead levels began to decline in their county had more mature, psychologically healthy adult personalities (higher agreeableness and conscientiousness and lower neuroticism), but these findings were not discriminable from pure cohort effects.

Our findings suggest that further reduction of lead exposure is a critical public health issue.