"Today, lead exposure is much lower because of regulations banning the use of lead in petrol, paints and other consumer products, so the number of deaths from lead exposure will be lower in younger generations". An increase of lead concentration in the participants' blood from 1 µg/dL to 6.7 µg/dL, was linked to ischemic heart disease mortality (HR = 2.08; 95% CI, 1.52-2.85, or 185,000 deaths a year); CVD mortality (HR = 1.7; 95% CI, 1.3-2.22, or 256,000 deaths a year); and all-cause mortality (HR = 1.37; 95% CI, 1.17-1.6).
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". Blood samples were taken from each participant at study baseline, and these were measured for levels of lead. Lanphear and his team sought to determine how exposure to lead contributes to all-cause mortality and cardiovascular disease (CVD) mortality in the U.S. Lead exposure is linked to high blood pressure, hardening of the arteries and ischemic (coronary) heart disease. That estimate of premature deaths is 10 times larger than in previous studies, and could put deaths from exposure to the heavy metal on a par with smoking.
Overall, 18 percent of USA participants who died from all causes during the period reviewed were found to have more than one mg/dl of lead in their blood.
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After an average of 19.3 years, 4,422 people died including 1,801 from cardiovascular disease and 988 from heart disease.
Lead was undetectable in the blood of almost one in 10 of the volunteers tested. Using these risk levels, the researchers estimated 412,000 deaths each year in the US could be attributed to lead exposure, including 256,000 from cardiovascular disease.
Researchers warned outside factors could lead to an "overestimation of the effect of concentrations of lead in blood, particularly from socioeconomic and occupational factors". 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.
Additionally, they note that they could not control for exposure to other contaminants that might affect cardiovascular health, such as arsenic or air pollution. "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 lead exposure".
"A key conclusion to be drawn from this analysis is that lead has a much greater impact on cardiovascular mortality than previously recognised". "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".