These subjects were also 70 percent more likely to die from CVD, and their risk of death from heart disease was doubled.
Between 1988 and 1994, United States experts gave blood-lead tests to 30,000 randomly selected Americans, from infants to the elderly, then followed up with people in 2011.
"Nobody had even tried to estimate the number of deaths caused by lead exposure using a nationally representative sample of adults", Dr Bruce Lanphear, a professor of health sciences at Simon Fraser University and a leading author of the study told CNN. 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.
Middle-aged people are especially vulnerable to past exposure, with lead in traffic fumes, paint and plumbing responsible. A total of 4,422 people died during a median follow-up of 19.3 years: 38 percent from cardiovascular disease and 22 percent from ischemic heart disease. "Still, lead represents a leading cause of disease and death, and it is important to continue our efforts to reduce environmental lead exposure".
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Baseline blood lead levels ranged from less than 1 μg/dL to 56 μg/dL.
Tim Chico from the University of Sheffield said: "This study suggests that lead, or factors that increase people's exposure to lead, causes thousands more deaths every year than we previously recognised".
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), children are most susceptible to the harms of lead exposure; their developing bodies absorb the chemical in higher amounts and their brains and nervous systems and more sensitive to it.
Researchers followed almost 14,300 participants for two decades and discovered that despite previous studies suggesting that low-level lead exposure did not increase the risk of premature death, this might not be the case.
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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%, 1150/14289 participants).
The study found that lead is common in a variety of common items including fuel, paint and plumbing and can even be found in certain foods, emissions from industrial sources, and contamination from lead smelting sites and lead batteries.
The authors note some limitations, including that their results rely on one blood lead test taken at the start of the study and therefore can not determine any effect of further lead exposure after the study outset.
The figures quoted apply to the U.S., 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.
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According to Dr. Philip Landrigan, Dean for Global Health at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, who was not involved in the study, the contaminant could increase the risk of plaque formation and arteriosclerosis by causing endothelial damage. A key conclusion to be drawn from this analysis is that lead has a much greater impact on cardiovascular mortality than previously recognized...