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Lead Exposure Linked to 10 Times More Deaths Than Reported

A new study found lead exposure is responsible for more deaths in the U.S. than previously thought.

Alexa Lardieri, US News, Mar 13, 2018

Lead may be responsible for up to 10 times more deaths in the United States than previously thought, according to a study published Monday in the journal The Lancet Public Health.

Researchers concluded about 400,000 deaths per year can be attributed to lead, a much higher number than previously reported by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. They examined 14,289 adults over 20 years and found those with a blood lead concentration at the 90th percentile (6.7 micrograms per deciliter) had a 37 percent increase in mortality.

Included in these deaths is 256,000 annual deaths from cardiovascular disease. The researchers found that individuals with a blood lead concentration at the 90th percentile had a 70 percent increase in cardiovascular disease mortality compared to those with a blood lead concentration at the 10th percentile (1.0 microgram per deciliter), which suggests lead exposure could be an overlooked contributing factor to this cause of death.

The researchers wrote even "low-level lead exposure is an important, largely overlooked, risk factor for deaths in the USA, particularly for cardiovascular disease deaths." They also concluded the estimated number of deaths attributable to lead were comparable to the number of deaths from tobacco smoke exposure.

People can be exposed to lead through paint, household dust, food, cigarette smoke and some industrial jobs. Lead exposure can also occur through water, such as in Flint, Michigan where thousands of residents were exposed to lead through contaminated water. Lead exposure during childhood can lead to delayed development and hearing and speech problems, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC estimates at least four million households have children exposed to high levels of lead. The agency suggests public health actions be taken when blood levels are above 5 micrograms per deciliter.

However, Dr. Bruce Lanphear, a professor of health sciences at Simon Fraser University and a leading author of the study told CNN "there is no safe threshold" for lead levels.

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