Lead Exposure Linked to 412,000 Deaths in US; On Par With Tobacco

Children in Indonesia play on lead smelting dump site in the middle of their village.

An important new paper from Dr. Bruce Lanphear, a member of the Pure Earth Leadership Council, and a Commissioner on The Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health, reveals that cardiovascular impacts of lead are under-estimated by a factor of 10. While stunning, this revelation did not surprise us here at Pure Earth.

Americans are exposed to lead in air, food, water, and from lead hazards in older housing. The study reveals that low-level lead exposure (between 1-5 micrograms of lead per decilitre of blood) increases the risk of premature death, especially from cardiovascular disease. An estimated 200,000 premature deaths from cardiovascular disease may be linked to historical lead exposure in the U.S. Lanphear concludes that lead could be responsible for as much as 18% of all mortalities, or 412,000 deaths.

This study is a wake-up call.  If the impact on U.S. health is this widespread, think about lead’s global impact, especially in low- and middle-income countries.  As Dr. Philip Landrigan, Co-Chair of The Lancet Commissioner on Pollution and Health, writes in his commentary:

“A key conclusion to be drawn from this analysis is that lead has a much greater impact on cardiovascular mortality than previously recognized… [The authors] suggest that the time has come to end neglect of pollution’s contribution to non-communicable diseases’ mortality and to thoroughly re-examine lead’s role in changing global patterns of cardiovascular disease.”

Dr. Lanphear’s findings highlight the need for more research and funding in this
area. There is an urgent need to research the extent of lead exposure in developing
countries, not just the cardiovascular impacts, but also the neurological impacts to
babies and children.

A Leading Global Health Threat

Pure Earth has been working to identify and clean up toxic sites in low-income countries
for almost 20 years. The most common toxicant we encounter is lead.

We’ve identified lead as one of the top six toxic threats in our reports, and lead poisoning as one of the world’s worst pollution problems. Dr. Jack Caravanos, Pure Earth’s Director of Research and Professor at NYU’s College of Global Public Health, calls lead the #1 childhood health threat.

“Lead continues to poison thousands of children worldwide. So why hasn’t this problem been solved? Part of the challenge is that there is no one source of lead poisoning worldwide. In the U.S., lead in paint and gasoline were the primary culprit; in Mexico and South America, decorative lead-glazed pottery continues to poison people; and in many African and Asian countries, lead mining and processing have left a legacy of toxic waste sites and pose an ongoing threat,” says Caravanos.

But of all the sources of lead exposure, the one we find in every urban area in low- and middle-income countries is the recycling of used lead-acid batteries (ULAB) from cars and motorbikes.

Batteries are collected and processed using crude, informal methods that contaminate  communities and result in dangerously elevated levels of lead in blood. It is not uncommon for our teams to find children in a community with blood lead levels between 15 and 65 micrograms per deciliter. We detail what is currently known about this in our 2016 World’s Worst Pollution Problems report.

In our Toxic Sites Identification Program , of the 3,000+ sites we have identified, over 1,100 are contaminated with lead putting close to 1 million people at risk. And this is just a fraction of the true extent of the problem.

“Lead recycling from depleted automotive batteries is simple, fast and profitable. We need to help countries develop effective lead battery collection and recycling programs that do not place communities at risk while at the same time create jobs and address poverty,” says Caravanos.

This is precisely what Pure Earth’s Global Lead program seeks to achieve.

“Our knowledge of lead exposures and lead-related health effects is quite advanced. However, what we do not readily know is for any given country, what percent of lead poisoning comes from the various sources, namely paint, pottery, cosmetics, smelters or battery recycling.”

Pure Earth’s TSIP program assesses toxic hotspots and provides crucial details needed to plan remediation, such as identifying the source of contamination and pathways to exposures. With this information, Pure Earth has worked with community stakeholders and cleaned up lead-contaminated sites in a dozen countries. These low-cost interventions deliver big health payoffs, and can be easily replicated. See examples of our lead cleanups below.

Learn more:

Read the paper – “Low-level Lead Exposure and Mortality in U.S. Adults: The NHANES Mortality Follow-up Study – published in leading medical journal The Lancet Public Health on March 12.

Examples of Lead Cleanups

Getting Lead Out Of Sovetskoe (Kan), Kyrgyzstan

Breaking the Cycle of Extreme Lead Poisoning in Pesarean, Indonesia

Protecting Children By Cleaning Up Lead-Contaminated Yards in Kabwe

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