lead poisoning heart disease

Lead Exposure Causes as Many Deaths as Smoking Suggests a New Study

Summary: New research suggests that exposure to traces of lead in the environment cause nearly as many deaths as smoking including almost a third of cardiovascular deaths.  [This article first appeared on LongevityFacts. Author: Brady Hartman. ]

A  new study suggests that as many as 412,000 Americans die prematurely every year due to exposure to low levels of lead.

The figure is significantly higher than previously estimated and could put deaths from lead exposure on par with smoking, which causes more than 439,000 deaths to smokers in the United States each year, according to the CDC.

Now, researchers link lead in the body to high blood pressure, hardening of the arteries and coronary heart disease, overturning the previous belief that low-level exposure did not increase mortality. The scientists published their results in The Lancet Public Health, a leading medical journal.

This is the first study to estimate the contribution of lead in blood to deaths from all causes and cardiovascular disease in a nationally representative sample. Professor Bruce Lanphear, who led the study at Canada’s Simon Fraser University, said:

“Low levels of lead exposure are an important, but largely ignored, risk factor for death from cardiovascular disease.”

The authors of the study added that the deaths were mainly due to an increase in heart attacks and strokes attributable to lead.

Oil refineries routinely added lead to gasoline to boost engine compression until the 1990s. Moreover, manufacturers added the heavy metal to household paint before it was banned in the US in 1978. Regulations have significantly reduced the risk of lead exposure in recent decades, but the metal can persist in the body for many years.

Moreover, new exposure to the metal continues, due to lead pipes in some older dwellings, contact with batteries, and industrial emissions, such as from smelting sites. Exposure to lead can also occur from drinking water contaminated with traces of the metal, as happened in a highly publicized incident in Flint, Michigan in 2016. Lead also falls on us from above. Smaller piston-engine planes burn enough leaded aviation fuel to account for half of the lead pollution in American skies.

The Lead Study

The authors of the new study analyzed data from the US National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES-III), a major study monitoring the dietary habits and health of Americans. The researchers followed around 14,300 participants from 1990 to 2011. At the start of the study, the scientists performed a medical examination on each participant which included a blood test for lead as well as a urine test for the metal cadmium.

Compared to those with little or no lead in their blood, those with high levels—at least 6.7 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dl) were more than twice as likely to die from ischemic heart disease. The study also found that higher levels of lead exposure raised the overall risk of death due to any cardiovascular cause by 70 percent.

Moreover, those same individuals were 37 percent more likely to die early of any cause.

The authors controlled for other factors that might contribute to cardiovascular diseases, such as poor diet, lack of exercise, smoking, and excessive alcohol consumption.

Tip of the Iceberg

In February 2016 Time.com reported that according to environmental health experts that the enormous U.S. problem

“is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the global burden of lead.”

Time.com interviewed Dr. Philip Landrigan, dean for global health at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York, and a recognized authority on the health effects of lead, who said

“The problem in the U.S. is serious,” adding “But numerically it’s overshadowed by the global problem.”

While the developed world has taken serious steps to reduce lead poisoning over the past few decades, dozens of other countries across the globe – usually in developing countries with lax regulatory standards – have failed to do anything meaningful to protect their population. Scientists know how to stop the problem inexpensively. However, because local officials are unwilling to commit the time and money to address the issue, thousands of communities around the world are burdened by lead exposure with no remediation efforts.

Bottom Line

According to a study in the Lancet, one in six global deaths are due to pollution, with experts predicting environmental contamination to rise to the to the leading cause of death in the next three decades. Moreover, a recent study published by Duke University predicts that rather than early cuts in fossil fuel emissions can save 153 million human lives, rather than waiting to cut emissions later, as is currently proposed.

Medical science has made significant advances in extending human lifespan and we can expect many more. However, toxins in our environment will sabotage our efforts to live to 120 in good health, unless we also address toxic pollution.

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Cover Photo: Getty Images.

Lanphear, Bruce P, et al. ”Low-level lead exposure and mortality in US adults: a population-based cohort study.” The Lancet Public Health, Volume 0, Issue 0. March 12, 2018.

Justin Worland. “How Lead Poisoning Is Devastating Countries Around the World.” Time.com February 24, 2016.


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