"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", Professor Lanphear said. "And instead of it being 40,000 deaths, which is what had previously been estimated, we found that it was about 10 times that", Lanphear said.
"It also suggests that even "low-level" exposure increases health risks".
Lanphear analyzed earlier USA government research from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES).
Around 14,300 participants were followed for nearly 20 years. All participants completed home interviews, had been tested for lead in their urine and were followed through 2011.
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.
The condition is caused by muscle in the heart being starved of blood due to narrowed or blocked arteries.
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The figures quoted apply to the USA, 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.
Lanphear and his team reviewed two decades of health data for more than 14,000 adults in the U.S., covering the period 1990-2011.
"Low levels of lead exposure are an important, but largely ignored, risk factor for death from cardiovascular disease", mainly heart attacks and strokes, said lead author Bruce Lanphear, a professor at Simon Fraser University in Canada.
According to findings of the new study, nearly 412,000 people in the United States die every year due to lead contamination.
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 was a correlation for an increase in the concentration of lead in blood from 1.0 to 6.7 µg/dL (10th to 90th percentiles) with all-cause mortality, cardiovascular disease mortality, and ischemic heart disease mortality (hazard ratios, 1.37, 1.70, and 2.08, respectively).
"Public health measures 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 exposure".
Nobody had even tried to estimate the number of deaths caused by lead exposure using a nationally representative sample of adults.
One in five of the subjects (around 3630 people) had levels of 5 μg/dL or more. "The authors were also unable to control for all potential confounding factors, such as exposure to arsenic or air pollution, which are also risk factors for cardiovascular disease". Environmental lead exposure is a risk factor for all-cause, cardiovascular disease, and ischemic heart disease mortality, according to a study published online March 12 in The Lancet Public Health.