Exposure to lead may have more significant global health implications than initially believed, possibly leading to over five million fatalities annually and equating to the dangers of air pollution, new research indicated on Tuesday.
Termed an “alert to the world”, this research also deduced that young children in underdeveloped nations might lose roughly six IQ points on average due to lead exposure.
It’s well-documented that lead contamination can lead to severe health consequences, notably affecting heart health and cognitive development in young children, leading to the global prohibition of leaded gasoline.
However, potential exposure to this potent neurotoxin remains, sourced from items like soil, food, utensils, beauty products, lead–acid vehicle batteries, fertilizers, and more.
The research, penned by two economists from the World Bank and released in the Lancet Planetary Health journal, claimed uniqueness in evaluating the repercussions of lead exposure on heart-related deaths and children’s IQ across affluent and underprivileged nations.
Primary researcher Bjorn Larsen expressed to AFP his astonishment at their model’s findings, stating the data was almost “too staggering” to voice aloud.
Their findings suggest that lead exposure was a factor in the deaths of 5.5 million adults due to heart ailments in 2019, with a significant 90% of these in lower to middle-income regions.
This figure surpasses previous estimates by sixfold and accounts for nearly 30% of global cardiovascular deaths, solidifying it as a prime mortality factor. This could imply lead’s role in cardiovascular disease exceeds other factors, including tobacco use or high cholesterol, according to Larsen.
Moreover, the report surmised a global loss of 765 million IQ points among children below five due to lead poisoning in 2019, predominantly affecting underprivileged countries. This loss is nearly 80% more than earlier approximations.
Economically, the World Bank team calculated the 2019 monetary impact of lead exposure to be $6 trillion, tantamount to 7% of the world’s total GDP. The research’s foundation was blood lead level approximations from 183 nations, sourced from the pivotal 2019 Global Burden of Disease investigation.
While earlier studies predominantly evaluated lead’s hypertension-causing effects, this research broadened its scope, considering other cardiovascular influences like arterial stiffness, leading to potential stroke incidents, clarified Larsen.
Roy Harrison, a renowned figure in air quality and health at the UK’s Birmingham University, voiced concerns about the study’s “potential inaccuracies”. Harrison stressed that extrapolating U.S.-based survey results on lead-blood correlation to a global context required a considerable “leap in assumption”.
Harrison also remarked that the study predominantly relied on estimations rather than actual blood lead tests, especially in underdeveloped regions.
Richard Fuller, the head of NGO Pure Earth, emphasized that most hands-on blood lead level tests in developing nations typically displayed higher values than those projected in this study.
Fuller contended that the repercussions of lead might be “even graver than depicted”, terming the study a “crucial alarm bell”. Larsen admitted a prevailing lack of clarity on lead sources contributing to blood contamination.
Fuller highlighted a revealing Pure Earth report, launched concurrently, that examined 5,000 samples of consumer items and edibles across 25 developing countries. This study detected considerable lead levels in various everyday products, including cosmetics, toys, and cookware.