Led by Prof. Bruce Lanphear, from Simon Fraser University in Canada, the study is the first to use a nationally representative sample to investigate how low levels of lead exposure affect mortality in the U.S.
Mr Lanphear's team followed 14,300 people for 20 years, measuring how much lead was in their blood in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
The study revealed that adults who had high lead levels in their blood were 37 percent more likely to die from all causes during the follow-up period, compared with those who had a lower level of 1 μg/dL.
As many as 412,000 Americans die prematurely every year - mostly from cardiovascular disease - due to past exposure to small amonts of the toxic metal, a new USA study suggested.
"Lead has toxic effects on multiple organ systems and relatively low levels of exposure previously thought to be safe", Philip Landrigan, a professor at New York's Icahn School of Medicine, said in a comment, also in The Lancet Public Health.
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"Today, lead exposure is much lower because of regulations banning the use of lead in petrol, paints and other consumer products, so the number of deaths from lead exposure will be lower in younger generations".
Overall cardiovascular death risk was raised by 70 per cent by higher levels of lead exposure, the study found.
"It is not surprising that lead exposure is overlooked; it is ubiquitous, but insidious and largely beyond the control of patients and clinician".
"Public health measures", he goes on, "such as abating 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".
"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", says Lanphear.
The new Lancet study estimates that deaths from lead exposure approach the levels attributable to smoking, which kills 483,000 Americans each year.
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Additionally, the NHANES study only took one reading of participants blood lead, which can change throughout people's lives as they are exposed.
In children, lead exposure may cause developmental, behavioral, and learning problems, as well as anemia and problems with hearing. The lead author does state, however, that action needs to continue to reduce exposure. Lead contamination can also occur in drinking water, as well as foods stored in lead-tainted containers.
At the outset, the average level of lead found in the participants' blood was 2.7 µg/dL, but ranged from less than 1 to 56 µg/dL.
The study's authors noted that outside factors could lead to "overestimation of the effect of concentrations of lead in blood, particularly from socioeconomic and occupational factors". The risk factor is even higher for people with cardiovascular disease, given that lead exposure is linked to high blood pressure, the hardening of the arteries and ischemic (coronary) heart disease.
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. 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.
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