One in five deaths is linked to lead pollution, scientists reveal

Lead was used in petrol for decades despite its toxicity. Its use was phased out in the 1990s

Lead was used in petrol for decades despite its toxicity. Its use was phased out in the 1990s

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 USA study suggests.

People can be exposed to lead via fuel, paint and plumbing, as well as around smelting sites or by handling lead batteries.

"What this study suggests is there's no apparent safe level" for adults, said the principal author of the study, Bruce Lanphear of Simon Fraser University, in Canada.

"Lead represents a leading cause of disease and death, and it is important to continue our efforts to reduce environmental lead exposure", Lanphear said.

Using data from the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 4,422 of the 14,289 participants died after an average of 19.3 years.

Around 14,300 participants were followed for nearly 20 years.

Lead was undetectable in the blood of almost one in 10 of the volunteers tested.

The condition is caused by muscle in the heart being starved of blood due to narrowed or blocked arteries. 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.

The findings are reported in The Lancet's public health journal.

The participants all had blood tests at the outset to measure past and current exposure to lead, as well as a urine test for the metal cadmium.

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Lead is most widely recognized as a hazard to children, who can suffer intellectual damage from even minimal exposure.

A similar study would need to be conducted in Australia to confirm the extent of the association between lead exposure and heart disease, Dr Harvey noted.

Overall cardiovascular death risk was raised by 70 per cent by higher levels of lead exposure, the study found.

"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".

For example, people with the highest lead levels were more likely to be men, smokers, and less educated, with poorer diets, high cholesterol, hypertension and diabetes, all of which are risk factors for cardiovascular disease.

"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", he explained.

Researchers warned outside factors could lead to an "overestimation of the effect of concentrations of lead in blood, particularly from socioeconomic and occupational factors".

Researchers said that it was possible these risk factors could confound the research and that scientists were unable to adjust for some other critical factors that contribute to cardiovascular disease, including air pollution.

The risk of succumbing to coronary heart disease doubled in such cases, the study found. The figures quoted apply to the United States, 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.

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