By tracking more than 14,000 adults over 20 years, researchers discovered that even people with low levels of lead in their blood had an increased risk of mortality and were more likely to suffer from a heart-disease related death. 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.
Exposure occurs from lead that remains in the environment from historic use in fuel, paint and plumbing, as well as ongoing exposures from foods, emissions from industrial sources, and contamination from lead smelting sites and lead batteries. However, because lead can contribute to conditions such as high blood pressure and hardening of arteries, it is also believed to contribute to cardiovascular and heart disease. Once we found that there was a risk across the entire range of exposures, we could estimate the number of attributable deaths.
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Lanphear analyzed earlier U.S. government research from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES).
Nearly one in 10 participants had lead levels that were undetectable to the blood test, so were given a reference level of 0.7 µg/dL (8%, 1150/14289 participants). Of those, 1,801 died from cardiovascular disease and 988 passed away from heart disease.
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A study on "ubiquitous but insidious" lead exposure is being deemed a "big deal" after researchers found a link between lead exposure and the deaths of around a quarter-million Americans annually from heart disease.
The study concluded that almost 30% of all deaths due to cardiovascular disease - basically, heart attacks and strokes - "could be attributable to lead exposure".
There are regulations in place to safeguard people against lead exposure but about 90 percent of USA are still exposed to the contaminant, CNN noted.
Although Mr Lanphear's study only covers America, it is likely that Britain is also at risk from lead pollution. The effects of lead on heart health had previously been thought to be much lower, especially at low levels of lead exposure, study lead author Bruce Lanphear tells CNN.
"Estimating the contribution of low-level lead exposure is essential to understanding trends in cardiovascular disease mortality and developing comprehensive strategies to prevent cardiovascular disease".
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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. "Public health measures, such as [upgrading] 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".
Using these risk levels, the authors also estimated the current proportion of deaths in adults aged 44 years or older in the United States of America that could have been prevented if historical exposure to lead had not occurred.
More than 4,400 people died in the period - and the tenth with the highest level of lead in their blood were 37 per cent more likely to be among them than the tenth with the least. The average blood lead level was 2.7 μg/dL, and a total of 3,632 study participants had a level of 5 μg/dL or higher.
In particular, they warned they were unable to adjust their findings to account for exposure to air pollutants or arsenic, both of which are risk factors for cardiovascular disease mortality. Blood samples were taken from each participant at study baseline, and these were measured for levels of lead.
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