A child has blood drawn to be tested for lead at a hospital in La Oroya, Peru in 2008 when nearly 100% of the children living in the town suffered from lead poisoning due to a nearby metal processing plant. David Rochkind / Getty Images
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A new study has found that lead exposure is more deadly than previous estimates, with about 5.5 million adults dying from cardiovascular disease linked to lead exposure in 2019 alone.
People have long known that high exposures of lead are dangerous. And since the 1970s, we’ve known that even minimal lead exposure can be harmful, PBS reported. Lead exposure is especially known for being harmful for children, as lead can cause negative impacts on brain and nervous system development, according to the World Health Organization.
But a new study, published in the journal Lancet Planetary Health, has found that adult cardiovascular deaths linked to lead exposure in 2019 were more than six times higher than previous estimates, NPR reported.
Even with a decline in blood lead levels, the study authors were able to determine significant health and economic impacts. In addition to the estimates of adults deaths, the researchers estimated that children 5 years and under around the world lost a total of 765 million intelligence quotient (IQ) points. Further, the authors wrote that the global economic impact of lead exposure in 2019 was about $6 trillion, making up nearly 7% of the global gross domestic product.
The impacts were particularly significant in low- and middle-income countries, which had about 5 million, or over 90%, of total adult cardiovascular disease deaths linked to lead exposure.
According to these estimates, the authors said that global lead exposure was similar to fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) in terms of health and economic impacts.
The study revealed that while efforts to reduce lead exposure through products like paint or leaded gasoline are important, there are still other sources of exposure that need to be considered.
“Many people believe that with the phase-out of leaded gasoline, the problem was solved,” Ernesto Sánchez-Triana, study co-author and the global lead for pollution management and circular economy at World Bank, told NPR. “What we have shown is that no, the problem is far away from solved.”
Other sources of lead exposure can vary globally. A separate 2019 study identified lead sources by country, with many countries experiencing lead exposure through electronic waste, ceramics, industrial emissions, and batteries.
In all, the research revealed ongoing, serious implications of lead exposure that persist globally, for people of all ages.
“Reducing environmental lead exposure has almost immediate benefits for young children in terms of preventing cognitive impairment. Reducing exposure also has long-term cardiovascular disease benefits in adulthood for children of all ages. However, it remains unknown to what extent reducing exposure can also benefit today’s adults who have had lifelong lead exposure,” the Lancet Planetary Health study concluded.
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