Over 400000 U.S. deaths per year caused by lead exposure

Low levels of environmental lead may be linked to many more deaths than previously thought research suggests

The figure is "10 times more than previously thought and could put deaths from lead exposure on a par with smoking", says The Independent.

People can be exposed to lead via fuel, paint and plumbing, as well as around smelting sites or by handling lead batteries.

Professor Bruce Lanphear, who led the study at Canada's Simon Fraser University, said: "Our study estimates the impact of historical lead exposure on adults now aged 44 years old or over in the US, whose exposure to lead occurred in the years before the study began". Once we found that there was a risk across the entire range of exposures, we could estimate the number of attributable deaths.

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".

Around 14,300 participants were followed for nearly 20 years. 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". Of these, 1,801 were from CVD and 988 were from heart disease.

The condition is caused by muscle in the heart being starved of blood due to narrowed or blocked arteries.

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.

Persistent, low-level exposure to lead over decades is statistically linked to some 400,000 premature deaths in the USA each year, far more than previously thought, researchers said on Monday.

The findings are reported in The Lancet's public health journal. "Still, lead represents a leading cause of disease and death, and it is important to continue our efforts to reduce environmental lead exposure".

Although Mr Lanphear's study only covers America, it is likely that Britain is also at risk from lead pollution. The results from the study said that low-levels of lead exposure, between one and five micrograms per decilitre of blood, can increase the risk of premature death.

"Estimating the contribution of low-level lead exposure is essential to understanding trends in cardiovascular disease mortality and developing comprehensive strategies to prevent cardiovascular disease".

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

"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".

Using these risk levels, the authors also estimated the current proportion of deaths in adults aged 44 years or older in the US that could have been prevented if historical exposure to lead had not occurred.

The link held even at low-level exposure to lead.

The study revealed that adults who had high lead levels in their blood were 37 percent more likely to die from all causes during the follow-up period, compared with those who had a lower level of 1 μg/dL.

"Despite the striking reductions in concentrations of lead in blood over the past 50 years, amounts found nowadays in adults are still ten times to 100 times higher than people living in the pre-industrial era".

They were not, however, able to factor out the possible impact of exposure to arsenic or air pollution.

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

Overall, 18% of United States participants who died from all causes during the period reviewed were found to have more than 1mg/dl of lead in their blood.

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