Media Release 6th January 2003
Early death in adults linked to lead exposure - US study
A US study has found that an adult with a blood lead level of 20 to 29 micrograms per decilitre of blood is more likely to die earlier, especially from circulatory disease or cancer, than adults with a level less than 10 micrograms per decilitre (10 µg/dL) Ten micrograms per declitre is the current US, European and Australian "standard" for a maximum blood lead level. Australias National Health and Medical Research Council recommends that all Australians be below 10 micrograms.
The US study, reported in the Archives of Internal Medicine, found that the increase in all-cause mortality was 46%, from circulatory disease, 39%, and 68% from cancer.
The authors of the study, Dr Mark Lustberg of the University of Maryland School of Medicine, and Dr Ellen Silbergeld of Johns Hopkins University, call for efforts to reduce exposure for anyone with a blood lead level of 20 micrograms per decilitre, or more, and a reduction of the "acceptable blood lead level" for workers.
"We estimate that 29 million people (15% of the adult population older than 20 years) had blood lead levels of at least 20 µg/dL from 1976 to 1980", say the authors. "A substantial number of Americans, then, are currently exposed to lead or have a history of lead exposure."
"This study is hugely significant for Australia," says Elizabeth OBrien, National Coordinator of The LEAD Group, and Manager of the Lead Advisory Service Australia. "The likelihood is that an even larger percentage of Australians more than 15% of the adult population - could be at risk of premature death, given that the US started reducing lead in petrol in 1975 as compared to 1986 in Australia."
"The breadth of the study is remarkable, by Australian standards. It used follow-up data for a US national survey carried out from 1976 to 1980, for participants then aged 30 to 74 years."
"An Australia-wide blood lead level survey is vital, not only to establish blood lead levels in the general population, but also to link blood lead levels with known risk factors, and, potentially, uncover so-far unknown risk factors."
Australian doctors, says Ms OBrien, have an inbuilt resistance to routinely checking blood lead levels, especially in children. "Lead is notorious for not producing clinical symptoms until you are, frankly, well on the way to being dead, or very ill," she says. "Doctors are used to working from symptoms. They should be working from risk factors, that is, from exposure to lead in the persons work and home life."
"A national survey in Australia would, one hopes, shake health professionals and public health bureaucrats out of their complacency, which is based on the principle that if you havent tested for a problem, it doesnt exist. Australia has 3.7 million dwellings built before 1970, when lead formed a now unacceptably high percentage of paint."
"The US study gives the lie to the common belief that high blood lead levels are only dangerous in childhood," says Ms OBrien. "The present Australian standard for maximum blood lead levels in adult workers exposed to lead is scandalously high 50 micrograms per decilitre" ###
Contact: Elizabeth O’Brien (02) 9716 0014 ###
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