Study: Lead Exposure Can Be Deadly For Adults

The danger of children's exposure to even the lowest level of lead is well known. Now, a new study finds that adults who are exposed to lead face major risks of death from heart attacks and other cardiovascular diseases.

The study found that each year, as many as 412,000 American adults face a greater risk of dying from cardiovascular diseases because they were exposed to elevated levels of lead during their lifetimes. That’s 10 times more than previously thought, and comparable to the risk level from smoking, which kills more than 480,000 Americans a year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

The study by Dr. Bruce Lanphear, a professor of health sciences at Simon Fraser University, and his colleagues was published this week in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet. The researchers reviewed death certificates for more than 14,000 people tested for lead exposure between 1988 and 1994. They found that after roughly 20 years, people with the highest levels of lead in their blood were 70 percent more likely to have died of cardiovascular disease, and twice as likely to have died of ischaemic heart disease, than their peers with lower lead levels.  

That suggests that – just as for children – there is “no apparent safe level” of lead exposure for adults, Lanphear said in an interview with The Guardian. He called the findings “troubling” but also “hopeful,” because they represent an opportunity to lower deaths from heart disease by reducing lead exposure of adults.

Blood test data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey show that adults’ lead exposure has declined in the last two decades, but the new study found increased death rates for people with lower levels of lead than previously reported. People in the highest risk group had lead levels higher than 6.7 micrograms per deciliter of blood. But more death was also seen among adults with lead levels below 5 micrograms per deciliter.

In a Lancet article accompanying the study, Dr. Philip Landrigan of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, said the findings have huge implications beyond the U.S. Landrigan, a leading expert on lead, said it’s time to pay more attention to the role of pollution in deaths from noncommunicable diseases and “thoroughly re-examine lead’s role in changing global patterns of cardiovascular disease.”

Long recognized as a grave danger to children’s neurological systems, lead is also harmful to many other parts of the body. While children exposed to small amounts of lead can suffer lifelong harm to brain development and behavior, lead exposure also causes oxidative stress, which causes cell damage that can lead to cancer, inflammation and kidney damage. Oxidative stress is also linked to high blood pressure.

Lead exposure comes from many sources. Young children can ingest dangerous amounts of lead if they live in houses with lead-based paint. An estimated 1.6 million adults employed in heavy industry or construction are exposed to lead on the job. Others handle lead if they hunt or fish – as lead is used in some bullets and sinkers – or if they use solder or certain craft supplies.

Today, drinking water and food are the major sources of lead exposure for older children and adults. Lead was used as a pesticide in the early 1900s, and because it doesn’t break down in soil, it is a long-term source of pollution on cropland. As a result, lead is measured in many otherwise-healthy foods like grains, milk and produce.

It can also be found in high levels in wild game meat contaminated by lead-based shot, and some imported foods, including Mexican tamarind candy and chapulines. The Environmental Defense Fund has called for stricter regulation of lead in the food supply, including lower limits on fruit juices that can pose a risk for children.

Fighting lead exposure from all sources is essential for the health of American children and adults. State and federal government agencies must take action to reduce risks from lead in paint, food, dust and soil, and fund remediation of lead-contaminated homes and industrial sites.

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