Lead exposure may be more deadly than previously thought

Lead exposure may be more deadly than previously thought

Lanphear, MD, with Simon Fraser University in Canada, and colleagues also linked environmental lead exposure to 412,000 total deaths each year in the U.S. They noted their estimate is 10 times higher than the previous one, likely because earlier calculations assumed levels below 5 μg/dL weren't associated with any increased mortality risk.

"Our study calls into question the assumption that specific toxicants, like lead, have "safe levels", and suggests that low-level environmental lead exposure is a leading risk factor for premature death in the US, particularly from cardiovascular disease", Professor Lanphear added.

"In other words, they aren't saying that current exposure to lead in the environment is the main thing here, as much of the exposure would have been in the past when regulation was much less strict than it is now".

"Our study estimates the impact of historical lead exposure on adults now aged 44 years old or over in the US, whose exposure to lead occurred in the years before the study began", he explained.

Metin Avkiran, associate medical director at the British Heart Foundation, said: "This study adds to the substantial evidence that exposure to lead can have long-term consequences".

In children, lead exposure may cause developmental, behavioral, and learning problems, as well as anemia and problems with hearing.

Middle-aged people are especially vulnerable to past exposure, with lead in traffic fumes, paint and plumbing responsible.

Lead was undetectable in the blood of almost one in 10 of the volunteers tested.

"But if we're underestimating the impact of lead exposure on cardiovascular disease mortality and other important outcomes beyond IQ, then it might have a big impact on the way we make investments in preventing lead poisoning exposure".

After the median follow-up of 19.3 years, 4,422 people died-including 1,801 from CVD and 988 from heart disease.

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People who had 6.7 microgram per deciliter (µg/dL) of lead in their blood at the start of the study had a 37% higher chance of dying prematurely from any cause, and a 70% higher chance of dying from heart disease, over the course of the study, compared to people who had 1 µg/dL of lead in their blood.

Overall, 18 percent of United States participants who died from all causes during the period reviewed were found to have more than one mg/dl of lead in their blood.

Stemming the risk requires a range of public health measures, Lanphear said in a journal news release, such as "abating older housing, phasing out lead-containing jet fuels, replacing lead-plumbing lines and reducing emissions from smelters and lead battery facilities".

The largest lead concentrations found in the study were 10 times higher.

The figures quoted apply to the USA, and it is unclear how levels of lead exposure in Britain compare, but "if results were similar in this country it would mean 100,000 deaths a year could be linked to past lead pollution", says The Times.

"Our study calls into question the assumption that specific toxicants, like lead, have 'safe levels, '" Lanphear said.

The new Lancet study estimates that deaths from lead exposure approach the levels attributable to smoking, which kills 483,000 Americans each year.

"A key conclusion to be drawn from this analysis is that lead has a much greater impact on cardiovascular mortality than previously recognised".

In particular, they warned they were unable to adjust their findings to account for exposure to air pollutants or arsenic, both of which are risk factors for cardiovascular disease mortality.

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