"Our study estimates the impact of historical lead exposure on adults now aged 44 years old or over in the U.S., whose exposure to lead occurred in the years before the study began", he explained. Lead exposure is linked to high blood pressure, hardening of the arteries and ischemic (coronary) heart disease. The US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires employers to remove workers from exposure when their blood lead levels rise to 50 µg/dL in the construction industry or 60 µg/dL in other industries, and they can return to work when their blood lead levels go down to 40 µg/dL.
"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 United States of America, particularly from cardiovascular disease".
Despite this, there are measures that can be taken to reduce lead exposure, such as checking for lead paint and being wary of lead water pipes in your home, having your children tested for the toxin and being aware of recalls and news about lead, Consumer Reports reported.
Tim Chico of the University of Sheffield told the paper: "This study suggests that lead, or factors that increase people's exposure to lead, causes thousands more deaths every year than we previously recognised".
After the median follow-up of 19.3 years, 4,422 people died-including 1,801 from CVD and 988 from heart disease.
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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).
People with the highest lead levels had a 37% greater risk than normal of a premature death and a 70% greater risk of death from cardiovascular disease. In a majority of cases, the condition is heart disease.
Researchers also wrote the level of lead concentration was indicative of the 10th to 90th percentiles of such concentrations.
He said: "The estimated number of deaths from all causes and cardiovascular disease that were attributable to concentrations of lead in blood were surprisingly large; indeed, they were comparable with the number of deaths from current tobacco smoke exposure".
"Lead represents a leading cause of disease and death, and it is important to continue our efforts to reduce environmental lead exposure", Lanphear said.
The authors adjusted their findings based on a number of comorbidities, including age, sex, household income, body mass index, diabetes, smoking status, dietary habits 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. "A key conclusion to be drawn from this analysis is that lead has a much greater impact on cardiovascular mortality than previously recognized".
Additionally, they note that they could not control for exposure to other contaminants that might affect cardiovascular health, such as arsenic or air pollution.