Published: Wed, March 14, 2018
Medical | By Marta Holmes

Lead poisoning may hasten death for millions

Lead poisoning may hasten death for millions

The researchers found that people with high levels of lead (equal or above 6.7 μg/dL) were 37% more likely to die prematurely, regardless of the cause, and 70% more likely to die from cardiovascular diseases.

The findings revealed a link between low-level exposure and increased risk of premature death.

Using these risk levels, the researchers estimated 412,000 deaths each year in the USA could be attributed to lead exposure, including 256,000 from cardiovascular disease.

Concentrations of lead in blood have decreased significantly over the last 50 years but remain 10 to 100 times higher than they were in the preindustrial era, the authors noted. "The HR (hazard ratio) for all-cause mortality from tobacco exposure was larger than that for concentration of lead in blood, but only 20% of the United States population smoked tobacco. Public health measures, such as [upgrading] older housing, phasing out lead-containing jet fuels, replacing lead-plumbing lines, and reducing emissions from smelters and lead battery facilities, will be vital to prevent lead exposure".

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"Currently, low levels of lead exposure are an important, but largely ignored risk factor for deaths from cardiovascular disease", adds Prof. Lead was once widely used in petrol, plumbing, paint, and other consumer products, but as it emerged that high exposure to the chemical - defined as having a blood lead level of 5 micrograms per deciliter (μg/dL) or higher - can be toxic to humans and animals, efforts have been made to reduce its use.

"Previous studies of cardiovascular disease mortality in lead-exposed populations have been criticized because they did not account for other risk factors associated with cardiovascular disease mortality, such as cadmium", Bruce P. Lanphear, MD, of the department of health sciences at Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, and colleagues wrote.

However, they acknowledged the use of a single baseline lead value to predict outcomes over the following 20 years was not ideal; serial measurements may have been more informative. All were given a medical examination at the start of the study that included a blood test for lead, with readings ranging from less than 1mg per decilitre of blood to 56mg. Lanphear and his team sought to determine how exposure to lead contributes to all-cause mortality and cardiovascular disease (CVD) mortality in the U.S.

"Our study findings suggest that low-level environmental lead exposure is an important risk factor for death in the U.S., particularly from cardiovascular disease", the paper states.

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The study concluded that almost 30% of all deaths due to cardiovascular disease - basically, heart attacks and strokes - "could be attributable to lead exposure".

They were not, however, able to factor out the possible impact of exposure to arsenic or air pollution.

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

Tim Chico, Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at the University of Sheffield, said the research did not prove that lead causes cardiovascular disease but "shows a strong association between levels of lead in the blood and future risk of heart attack and dying".

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