So far, efforts to reduce lead risks have been largely focused on young children because their developing brains make kids especially vulnerable to the toxin at very low levels. Since research also tended to concentrate on this group, little was known about how low levels of lead affect the health of adults – until now.
A new study in the prestigious journal Lancet puts adults and lead in the spotlight, and should serve as a wakeup call to regulators charged with protecting our safety and health. They can now begin to quantify the true economic and societal costs of lead exposure.
Lead and risk of premature death: A new picture emerges
A team led by Bruce Lanphear, a health sciences professor at Simon Fraser University, mined existing, nationally representative data on more than 14,000 adults. All had their blood tested for lead between 1988 and 1994, and had died before 2011.
People with blood levels of 6.7 micrograms of lead per deciliter had a 37-percent higher risk of death from all causes, and a 70-percent higher risk of death due to cardiovascular disease, compared with those with a blood lead level of 1 microgram per deciliter. These blood levels were previously thought to be safe.
Similarly, ischemic heart disease mortality – a condition that reduces the blood flow to the heart, causing a heart attack – rose 108 percent in adults with a concentration of 6.7 micrograms per deciliter of lead in their blood.
The upshot of this study is that levels of lead previously considered safe are attributed to more than 265,000 premature cardiovascular deaths a year– more than half of all tobacco-related deaths in the United States today – and why the Lancet study is so important from a policy perspective.
What will our policymakers do next?
Federal regulatory agencies have a rigorous process of vetting significant studies such as this one through peer review panels, science advisory boards, agency experts and the Office of Management and Budget before it can be the basis of an economic analysis and support rule making.
Therefore, we don't expect this remarkable study to have an immediate impact on rules, especially in the anti-regulatory environment in which we exist today.
But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration all have a legal and ethical obligation to give the Lancet lead study serious consideration and to take it through this review process. The next opportunity is the EPA’s long-awaited revisions to the Lead and Copper Rule limiting lead in drinking water.
We now know that even low levels of lead alter lives. Lead affects our brains when we're young and contribute to our premature death as adults. It’s why we must redouble our efforts to reduce all exposure to lead – period.
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