Thousands of premature deaths from cardiovascular disease in the U.S. linked to historical lead exposure

More than 250,000 early deaths due to cardiovascular disease in the U.S. have been linked to historical lead exposure in middle-aged and older adults, according to a study published in the journal The Lancet Public Health. The study found that low-level lead exposure increased the risk of premature deaths, particularly from cardiovascular disease. Lead exposure is linked to high blood pressure, hardening of the arteries, and coronary heart disease.

In the observational study, the research team followed 14,300 people for nearly 20 years. They explored the effect of historical lead exposure on adults who were 44 years old or older (at the end of the study) in the U.S. and who were exposed to lead before the study started. They used data from the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES-III) to observe 14,289 people in the U.S. who were 20 years old or older between 1988 and 1994.

At the beginning of the study, the participants underwent a medical examination, which included a blood test for lead and a urine test for cadmium. After about 20 years, 4,422 people died – 1,801 due to cardiovascular disease and 988 from heart disease.

In total, individuals with high lead levels were 37 percent more likely to die early from any cause, 70 percent times more at risk of death due to cardiovascular disease, and twice the risk of heart disease, in comparison with people with lower lead levels.

Using these risk levels, researchers estimated that more than 400,000 deaths every year in the U.S. could be attributed to people who had lead levels of more than one microgram of lead per deciliter of blood (µg/dL). They also estimated that more than 250,000 premature cardiovascular deaths were due to lead exposure, with around 185,000 deaths from ischemic heart disease.

The average lead level in the blood of the participants was 2.5 µg/dL. Moreover, the participants with the highest levels of lead in their blood were older, less educated, more likely to be male, smoke, drink more alcohol, have less healthy diets, have greater cholesterol levels, and tend to have hypertension or diabetes.

The researchers said that these deaths could have been prevented if historical lead exposure did not happen. Today, lead remains one of the leading cause of diseases and deaths. Thus, it is essential to continue to minimize environmental lead exposure.

Other health problems caused by lead exposure

Being exposed to very high levels of lead over a short period of time could lead to lead poisoning. This may cause a person to experience abdominal pain, constipation, tiredness, headache, irritability, loss of appetite, memory loss, pain or tingling in the hands and/or feet, or weakness. Moreover, exposure to high lead concentrations may cause anemia, kidney failure, and brain damage. Neurological effects and mental retardation can also occur due to lead exposure. Furthermore, extremely high lead exposure can lead to death.

Generally, children below six years old are more at risk of lead poisoning. Babies who were exposed to lead before birth might be born prematurely, have lower birth weight, or have slowed growth. Lead exposure can also cause miscarriage, stillbirths, and infertility in both men and women. (Related: Lead exposure linked to emotional problems, anxiety and pervasive developmental problems in children.)

People can be exposed to lead through various occupational and environmental sources. Most exposures are due to inhalation of lead particles produced by burning materials that contain lead, and ingestion of lead-contaminated dust, water, and food. Lead exposure prevention is important because its harmful effects cannot be reversed, and even low levels of lead are toxic.

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