An worldwide study has found that low-level lead exposure could be responsible for 30 per cent of premature deaths from cardiovascular disease in the United States. 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.
"Our study estimates the impact of historical lead exposure on adults now aged 44 years old or over in the U.S., whose exposure to lead occurred in the years before the study began", he explained.
Of environmental lead exposure, he said: "If we took that seriously, without knowing anything more about genetics, without any more expensive drugs, we could much more strategically reduce deaths from heart disease, which is pretty hopeful, actually".
The authors note some limitations, including that their results rely on one blood lead test taken at the start of the study and therefore can not determine any effect of further lead exposure after the study outset.
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".
At the outset, the average level of lead found in the participants' blood was 2.7 µg/dL, but ranged from less than 1 to 56 µg/dL.
Over an average 19.3 years of follow-up, a total of 4,422 deaths occurred. An increase of lead concentration in the participants' blood from 1 µg/dL to 6.7 µg/dL, was linked to ischemic heart disease mortality (HR = 2.08; 95% CI, 1.52-2.85, or 185,000 deaths a year); CVD mortality (HR = 1.7; 95% CI, 1.3-2.22, or 256,000 deaths a year); and all-cause mortality (HR = 1.37; 95% CI, 1.17-1.6).
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Nearly one in 10 participants had lead levels that were undetectable to the blood test, so were given a reference level of 0.7 µg/dL (8%, 1,150/14,289 participants).
These results were adjusted for age, sex, household income, ethnic origin, diabetes, BMI, smoking status, alcohol consumption, diet, physical activity, and amount of cadmium in urine.
Prof. Lanphear and team admit that there are some limitations to their research.
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". For example, they point out that their study relied on a single blood test from each subject at baseline, so they were unable to determine the "effect of further lead exposure".
They were not, however, able to factor out the possible impact of exposure to arsenic or air pollution.
The study found that lead is common in a variety of common items including fuel, paint and plumbing and can even be found in certain foods, emissions from industrial sources, and contamination from lead smelting sites and lead batteries.
In what USA Today says is the first study using a nationally representative sample to look at how low-level lead exposure is tied to deaths in the United States, scientists kept tabs on more than 14,000 adults who took a national health survey between 1988 and 1994, then again in 2011.
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.
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