Lead's Heart Disease Death Toll 10 Times Higher Than Thought, Study Suggests

Lead was used in petrol for decades despite its toxicity. Its use was phased out in the 1990s

More than 400,000 deaths annually from ischemic heart disease and CVD may be attributable to low levels of lead exposure, according to findings recently published in Lancet Public Health.

He added: "This study suggests that lead, or factors that increase people's exposure to lead, causes thousands more deaths every year than we previously recognised". 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.

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.

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 USA 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.

However, because lead can contribute to conditions such as high blood pressure and hardening of arteries, it is also believed to contribute to cardiovascular and heart disease.

"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.

Between 1988 and 1994, U.S. experts gave blood-lead tests to 30,000 randomly selected Americans, from infants to the elderly, then followed up with people in 2011. But only 20% of Americans now smoke, while lead exposure is more common, affecting 90% of people in the study.

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

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

"Our study calls into question the assumption that specific toxicants, like lead, have 'safe levels, ' and suggests that low-level environmental lead exposure is a leading risk factor for premature death in the U.S., particularly from cardiovascular disease", Lanphear added.

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.

"A recurrent theme in lead poisoning research has been the realization that lead has toxic effects on multiple organ systems at relatively low levels of exposure previously thought to be safe", Landrigan wrote.

"It also suggests that even "low-level" exposure increases health risks".

"Public health measures such as abating 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 exposure".

"It's a big deal and it's largely been ignored when it comes to cardiovascular disease deaths".

AFP/GETTYTHIS causes one in five deaths - are you at risk?

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