Researchers in the United States monitored lead levels in more than 14,000 Americans over 20 years and found that even very low levels - between one to five micrograms of lead per decilitre of blood - increases the risk of premature death.
Compared with people having low levels of lead in their blood, those with high levels of at least 6.7 micrograms were twice as likely to die from ischaemic heart disease, a condition where the heart is starved of blood due to narrowed or block arteries.
People can be exposed to lead via fuel, paint and plumbing, as well as around smelting sites or by handling lead batteries.
"Today, lead exposure is much lower because of regulations banning the use of lead in petrol, paints and other consumer products, so the number of deaths from lead exposure will be lower in younger generations".
Of environmental lead exposure, he said: "If we took that seriously, without knowing anything more about genetics, without any more expensive drugs, we could much more strategically reduce deaths from heart disease, which is pretty hopeful, actually".
Lanphear analyzed earlier U.S. government research from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). All were given a medical examination at the start of the study that included a blood test for lead, with readings ranging from less than 1mg per decilitre of blood to 56mg.
For example, people with the highest lead levels were more likely to be men, smokers, and less educated, with poorer diets, high cholesterol, hypertension and diabetes, all of which are risk factors for cardiovascular disease.
The participants all had blood tests at the outset to measure past and current exposure to lead, as well as a urine test for the metal cadmium.
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The new study traced more than 14,000 adults covering the time span of 20 years.
The study concluded that almost 30 percent of all deaths due to cardiovascular disease - basically, heart attacks and strokes - "could be attributable to lead exposure". That estimate of premature deaths is 10 times larger than in previous studies, and could put deaths from exposure to the heavy metal on a par with smoking.
"Lead has toxic effects on multiple organ systems and relatively low levels of exposure previously thought to be safe", Philip Landrigan, a professor at New York's Icahn School of Medicine, said in a comment, also in The Lancet Public Health.
Professor Kevin McConway, Emeritus Professor of Applied Statistics at the Open University, said: "The researchers make a very important point in their report - that it is more accurate to view this study as estimating how many deaths might have been prevented if historical exposures to lead had not occurred".
They were not, however, able to factor out the possible impact of exposure to arsenic or air pollution.
The risk of succumbing to coronary heart disease doubled in such cases, the study found.
Environmental exposure to low levels of lead hidden in paint, soil and plumbing systems could be responsible for hundreds of premature deaths every year, an worldwide study suggests.
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