Published: Wed, March 14, 2018
Medicine | By Brett Sutton

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

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

Tim Chico from the University of Sheffield said: "This study suggests that lead, or factors that increase people's exposure to lead, causes thousands more deaths every year than we previously recognised".

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. Lead exposure is linked to high blood pressure, hardening of the arteries and ischemic (coronary) heart disease.

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

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

Metin Avkiran, associate medical director at the British Heart Foundation, said: "This study adds to the substantial evidence that exposure to lead can have long-term consequences".

Historical exposure occurs from lead present in the environment because of past use in fuel, paint and plumbing. In what USA Today says is the first study using a nationally representative sample to look at how low-level lead exposure is tied to deaths in the U.S., scientists kept tabs on more than 14,000 adults who took a national health survey between 1988 and 1994, then again in 2011.


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

These subjects were also 70 percent more likely to die from CVD, and their risk of death from heart disease was doubled.

Lead was undetectable in the blood of almost one in 10 of the volunteers tested. One in five participants (3,632 people) had levels of 5 µg/dL or more, and those with the highest levels of lead in their blood were older, less educated, more likely to be male, smoke, consume larger amounts of alcohol, have less healthy diets, have higher cholesterol, and more likely to have hypertension or diabetes.

The researchers called for more aggressive measures to retire contaminated housing, phase out lead-laden jet fuels, replace lead pipes in plumbing, and reduce emissions from smelters and lead battery factories.

Prof Lanphear said: "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 United States of America, particularly from cardiovascular disease". And adult exposure to lead even at levels so low that they've been considered relatively benign is actually deadly enough to be considered a leading cause of death in the US. In addition, they were unable to control for all potential confounders such as air pollution or arsenic exposure, both of which are established CVD risk factors.

The figures quoted apply to the U.S., 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. "The information that emerges from this reassessment will increase understanding of lead's contribution to mortality from non-communicable diseases, could foster collaboration between the environmental and chronic disease research communities, guide realignment of cardiovascular disease prevention strategies, and ultimately save lives".

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