Studies and policies addressing the dangers of low-level lead exposure normally focus on children, and the IQ points they stand to lose when too much of the metal reaches their developing brains. But lead also poses less-discussed threat to adults: it damages a number of organs, especially the heart. Adult exposure to lead, even at low levels, which in the past was deemed relatively benign, is actually deadly enough to be considered a leading cause of death in the US.
According to a study published in Lancet Public Health on March 12, 2018, as many as 412,000 people die prematurely every year from health conditions involving lead exposure as the underlying cause. In a majority of cases, the cause of death is heart disease. And while heart disease is the leading killer of adults in the US, as many as 256,000 adult deaths from heart disease per year can be attributed to low-level lead exposure. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, even very low blood lead levels elevate a person’s risk for hypertension, heart disease, and reduced kidney function.
From the 1990s until 2015, the US Centers for Disease Control considered anything less than 10 µg/dL to be a “low” level of exposure for adults, though the CDC does not consider any level of lead to be “safe.” The threshold has since been adjusted to 5 µg/dL. But in practice, there are few laws to help inform or enforce these limits. When detected, the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires employers to remove construction workers from exposure when blood lead levels rise to 50 µg/dL or 60 µg/dL in other industries. They can return to work when their blood lead levels go down to 40 µg/dL.
The good news is that, in general, blood lead levels have steadily declined in the US since clamping down on industrial lead emission, including especially lead in gasoline and household paints. The bad news is that the legacy of lead pollution lives on in soil still contaminated from historical sources. Lead is still allowed in makeup; and some toys and household objects, despite regulations limiting lead content in those consumer goods. Recent news, including the Project Censored’s top story for 2016-2017, highlight the danger of many municipal drinking water systems being lead-tainted. And things may get worse, with the Donald Trump administration stating its commitment to roll back regulations that limit lead in air pollution.
Lead contamination has seen corporate media coverage in the past, especially when it comes to lead-tainted water. However, as of March 2018, no corporate media has covered the crucial findings from the study published in Lancet Public Health.
Zoë Schlanger, “Lead Exposure Kills Hundreds of Thousands of Adults Every Year in the US Alone,” Quartz, March 13, 2018, https://qz.com/1228542/low-level-lead-exposure-kills-hundreds-of-thousands-of-us-adults-every-year/.
Bruce P Lanphear, Stephen Rauch, Peggy Auinger, Ryan W Allen, Richard W Hornung, “Low-level lead exposure and mortality in US adults: a population-based cohort study” The Lancet Public Health, March 12, 2018. http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanpub/article/PIIS2468-2667(18)30025-2/fulltext
Eric Beech, “U.S. EPA reverses policy on ‘major sources’ of pollution” Reuters: U.S. Legal News, January 25, 2018 https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trump-epa/u-s-epa-reverses-policy-on-major-sources-of-pollution-idUSKBN1FF075
“Limiting Lead in Lipstick and Other Cosmetics” U.S. Food & Drug Administration, February 22, 2018 https://www.fda.gov/cosmetics/productsingredients/products/ucm137224.htm
Student Researcher: Jason San (San Francisco State University)
Faculty Evaluator: Kenn Burrows (San Francisco State University)