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US Deaths Tied to 'Ubiquitous but Insidious' Lead: 410K a Year

14 March 2018

From an analysis of more than 14,000 people in the US, researchers found that exposure to low lead levels from the late 1980s to the mid-1990s was linked to a higher risk of cardiovascular and all-cause death over the next 20 years.

"Nobody had even tried to estimate the number of deaths caused by lead exposure using a nationally representative sample of adults", Dr Bruce Lanphear, a professor of health sciences at Simon Fraser University and a leading author of the study told CNN. Lanphear and colleagues suggests that even lower levels of lead exposure can pose significant harm to health.

Exposure to lead could contribute to as many as 412,000 premature deaths each year in the United States, a new study in the medical journal the Lancet has found.

The study said "the estimated number of deaths from all causes and cardiovascular disease that were attributable to concentrations of lead in blood were surprisingly large; indeed, they were comparable with the number of deaths from current tobacco smoke exposure".

"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".

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There are regulations in place to safeguard people against lead exposure but about 90 percent of USA are still exposed to the contaminant, CNN noted. 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. Of those, 1,801 died from cardiovascular disease and 988 passed away from heart disease.

The risk of succumbing to coronary heart disease doubled in such cases, the study found.

"Currently, low levels of lead exposure are an important, but largely ignored risk factor for deaths from cardiovascular disease".

People with the highest lead levels had a 37% greater risk than normal of a premature death and a 70% greater risk of death 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.

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The researchers called for more aggressive measures to retire contaminated housing, phase out lead-laden jet fuels, replace lead pipes in plumbing, and reduce emissions from smelters and lead battery factories.

These results remained after accounting for a number of possible confounding factors, including participants' age, sex, body mass index (BMI), diet, smoking status, and alcohol intake.

"A key conclusion to be drawn from this analysis is that lead has a much greater effect on cardiovascular mortality than previously recognized", wrote Philip J. Landrigan, MD, MSc, in a related editorial.

Studies into and policies based on dangers of low-level lead exposure normally focus on children, and the IQ points they stand to lose when too much of the heavy metal reaches their developing brains.

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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US Deaths Tied to 'Ubiquitous but Insidious' Lead: 410K a Year