Low levels of lead exposure kills more adults than we thought

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From an analysis of more than 14,000 people in the US, 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. 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. Of these, at least 256,000 occurred from cardiovascular disease - a number suggesting lead exposure could be a far greater cause of death than initially thought.

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. Lead exposure is linked to high blood pressure, hardening of the arteries and ischemic (coronary) heart disease. A recent study tells about the health hazards of lead exposure for the people's health. Over the last 10 years, research has found an array of health effects in adults at low levels; the US Department of Health and Human Services published a monograph in 2012 showing that even very low blood lead levels raised a person's risk for hypertension, heart disease, and reduced kidney function.

The study concluded that almost 30 percent of all deaths due to cardiovascular disease - basically, heart attacks and strokes - "could be attributable to lead exposure".

After an average of 19.3 years, 4,422 people died including 1,801 from cardiovascular disease and 988 from heart disease.

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. In a majority of cases, the condition is heart disease.

Concentrations of lead in blood have decreased significantly over the last 50 years but remain 10 to 100 times higher than they were in the preindustrial era, the authors noted.

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Stemming the risk requires a range of public health measures, Lanphear said in a journal news release, such as "abating older housing, phasing out lead-containing jet fuels, replacing lead-plumbing lines and reducing emissions from smelters and lead battery facilities".

The figures quoted apply to the United States, and it is unclear how levels of lead exposure in Britain compare, but "if results were similar in this country it would mean 100,000 deaths a year could be linked to past lead pollution", says The Times.

"Our study calls into question the assumption that specific toxicants, like lead, have 'safe levels, '" Bruce Lanphear, a professor at Simon Fraser University and the lead author on the paper, said in a statement.

"A key conclusion to be drawn from this analysis is that lead has a much greater impact on cardiovascular mortality than previously recognised".

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

"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".