Exposure to Lead could Cause Heart Attacks

Low levels of environmental lead may be linked to many more deaths than previously thought research suggests

As many as 412,000 Americans die prematurely every year - mostly from cardiovascular disease - due to historic exposure to low levels of the toxic metal, a U.S. study suggests.

"Nobody had even tried to estimate the number of deaths caused by lead exposure using a nationally representative sample of adults", Dr Bruce Lanphear, a professor of health sciences at Simon Fraser University and a leading author of the study told CNN. The lead author does state, however, that action needs to continue to reduce exposure.

Safety regulations have significantly reduced the risk of lead exposure in recent decades, especially in developed countries, but the heavy metal can persist in the body for many years.

Exposure to traces of lead in petrol and paint may be linked to hundreds of thousands of premature deaths each year. "It is not surprising that lead exposure is overlooked; it is ubiquitous, but insidious and largely beyond the control of patients and clinicians".

The study concluded that almost 30 percent of all deaths due to cardiovascular disease - basically, heart attacks and strokes - "could be attributable to lead exposure".

Lead was once routinely used products like gasoline, paint and plumbing and persists in the environment. Of those, 1,801 died from cardiovascular disease and 988 passed away from heart disease.

These subjects were also 70 percent more likely to die from CVD, and their risk of death from heart disease was doubled.

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%, 1,150/14,289 participants).

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The largest lead concentrations found in the study were 10 times higher.

Prof Lanphear said: "Our study calls into question the assumption that specific toxicants, like lead, have "safe levels", and suggests that low-level environmental lead exposure is a leading risk factor for premature death in the US, particularly from cardiovascular disease".

There are regulations in place to safeguard people against lead exposure but about 90 percent of US are still exposed to the contaminant, CNN noted.

These results were adjusted for age, sex, household income, ethnic origin, diabetes, BMI, smoking status, alcohol consumption, diet, physical activity, and amount of cadmium in urine. 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.

Stemming the risk requires a range of public health measures, Lanphear said in a journal news release, such as "abating older housing, phasing out lead-containing jet fuels, replacing lead-plumbing lines and reducing emissions from smelters and lead battery facilities".

More than 400,000 deaths annually from ischemic heart disease and CVD may be attributable to low levels of lead exposure, according to findings recently published in Lancet Public Health.

"A key conclusion to be drawn from this analysis is that lead has a much greater effect on cardiovascular mortality than previously recognized", wrote Philip J. Landrigan, MD, MSc, in a related editorial.

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. 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.

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