Previous research has long established that prolonged lead exposure leads to brain damage in children and increases the risk of high blood pressure and heart disease. However, a new study suggests that the threat of lead poisoning is bigger than what we’ve believed.
According to the research paper, published in the journal, Lancet Public Health, lead exposure may contribute to more than 400 thousand deaths of American adults each year. Out of all these cases, 256 thousand deaths are heart-related suggesting that lead exposure may be an overlooked risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
The study based its estimates on a national health survey that tracked 14,289 adults, whose blood had been tested for lead sometime between 1988 and 1994.
In previous studies, scientists believed that low levels of lead in people’s blood wouldn’t increase the risk of mortality. However, the new research found the even trace amounts of lead substantially increase the risk of death, specifically from heart disease.
“We saw risk down to the lowest measurable levels,” said Bruce Lanphear, lead author of the study and a lead poisoning researcher at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. “It’s a big deal and it’s largely been ignored when it comes to cardiovascular disease deaths.”
People can be exposed to lead through paint, household dust, water, food, and cigarette smoke, as well as through several industrial jobs.
Lead exposure had declined dramatically in the United States ever since the country began phasing out leaded gasoline and paint in the 1970s. However, the threat is still considered a risk factor for heart disease with the CDC and the Environmental Protection Agency warning that lead is unsafe at any level.
By the end of the study, researchers found that 4.422 of the people analyzed had died, including 1.801 from cardiovascular disease, out of which 988 deaths stemmed from coronary heart disease. Researchers accounted for several factors for the results including age, sex, alcohol consumption, smoking, and diet. They estimate that a proportion of death in adult Americans ages 44 or older could have been prevented if they hadn’t been exposed to lead.
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