Lead exposure increases risk for premature deaths & cardiovascular diseases

Laverne Higgins
March 14, 2018

Older Americans exposed to lead when they were younger, more likely to have heart disease.

From an analysis of more than 14,000 people in the USA, 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.

The research found that people with high lead levels were at 37 per cent greater risk of premature death from any cause, 70 per cent times greater risk of cardiovascular death, and double the risk of death from ischemic heart disease, compared to those with lower levels.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), children are most susceptible to the harms of lead exposure; their developing bodies absorb the chemical in higher amounts and their brains and nervous systems and more sensitive to it.

Lead was added to petrol until the 1990s to boost engine compression, and was also widely used to improve the performance of household paint before being banned in the United States in 1978 and the European Union in 1992 "after concerns over the effects it was having on the environment and children's brains", adds the paper.

This led researchers to conclude that 28.7 per cent of premature cardiovascular disease deaths were linked to lead exposure.

Additionally, the authors suggested the current proportion of deaths in adults aged 44 years or older could have been prevented if historical exposure to lead had not occurred.

Baseline blood lead levels ranged from less than 1 μg/dL to 56 μg/dL.

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Researchers warned outside factors could lead to an "overestimation of the effect of concentrations of lead in blood, particularly from socioeconomic and occupational factors".

Based on these risk levels, the authors estimated that up to 18 percent of all deaths every year in the U.S. (or 412,000 out of 2.3 million annual mortalities) would be among people who had levels of lead above 1 micrograms per deciliter.

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.

Researchers followed almost 14,300 participants for two decades and discovered that despite previous studies suggesting that low-level lead exposure did not increase the risk of premature death, this might not be the case.

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.

"It also suggests that even "low-level" exposure increases health risks. [The authors] suggest that the time has come to end neglect of pollution's contribution to non-communicable diseases' mortality and to thoroughly re-examine lead's role in changing global patterns of cardiovascular disease".

According to Dr. Philip Landrigan, Dean for Global Health at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, who was not involved in the study, the contaminant could increase the risk of plaque formation and arteriosclerosis by causing endothelial damage.

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