Lead Exposure Linked to 412000 Premature Deaths in US Each Year

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

For example, people with the highest lead levels were more likely to be men, smokers, and less educated, with poorer diets, high cholesterol, hypertension and diabetes, all of which are risk factors for cardiovascular disease.

Although Mr Lanphear's study only covers America, it is likely that Britain is also at risk from lead pollution.

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.

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 United States of America, whose exposure to lead occurred in the years before the study began".

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".

Lead was once routinely used products like gasoline, paint and plumbing and persists in the environment.

The study used data from the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES-III) for 14289 people in the U.S. aged 20 years or older between 1988 and 1994, and the end of 2011. All participants had a medical exam and a blood test for lead at the start of the study.

Lead author Professor Bruce Lanphear said that many people in the study were actually exposed to lead before they were being analysed. The population attributable fractions of the concentration of lead in blood for all-cause, cardiovascular, and ischemic heart disease mortality were 18.0, 28.7, and 37.4 percent, respectively, equivalent to 412,000, 256,000, and 185,000 deaths annually.

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The study, which was published in The Lancet Public Health journal this week, tracked more than 14,000 adults over a period of about 20 years.

"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".

The figures quoted apply to the USA, 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. Lanphear and colleagues suggests that even lower levels of lead exposure can pose significant harm to health.

The study's authors noted that outside factors could lead to "overestimation of the effect of concentrations of lead in blood, particularly from socioeconomic and occupational factors".

At the outset, the average level of lead found in the participants' blood was 2.7 µg/dL, but ranged from less than 1 to 56 µg/dL.

In particular, they warned they were unable to adjust their findings to account for exposure to air pollutants or arsenic, both of which are risk factors for cardiovascular disease mortality.

A history of lead exposure may be linked to more than a quarter of a million deaths from heart disease each year.