The consequences of lead poisoning are drastically underestimated in terms of public health, according to a study published Tuesday, which estimates their scale comparable to that of atmospheric pollution.
According to this study, published in the journal Lancet Planetary Health, lead pollution was the cause of 5.5 million deaths from cardiovascular diseases worldwide in 2019. It has also affected the cognitive abilities of children under five, particularly in developing countries.
To reach these conclusions, the authors, led by two economists from the World Bank, assessed the level of lead poisoning in the population of numerous countries (183) based on estimates from blood tests. These had been modeled in the Global Burden of Disease, a huge research program which serves as the basis for numerous studies.
They then cross-referenced this data with the expected health consequences of lead poisoning. It is the cause of numerous pathologies, particularly in children, while lead can be found in food, dishes, fertilizers, etc.
Causes 30% of deaths from cardiovascular diseases
Results of this work: lead poisoning, which represents a problem as serious as air pollution, is the cause of 30% of deaths from cardiovascular diseases, a level six times higher than current estimates.
This figure is “huge”, according to one of the authors, Bjorn Larsen, of the World Bank. The role of lead in cardiovascular diseases would therefore be greater than that of smoking or cholesterol, he emphasizes to AFP.
These results have, however, been received with caution by researchers who consider certain methodological choices questionable.
Alarming figures that remain controversial
It’s a work “interesting but subject to many uncertainties“, Roy Harrison, an air pollution expert at the University of Birmingham, told AFP.
He particularly emphasizes that it is difficult to reliably assess the degree of lead poisoning among populations in developing countries.
Another doubt concerns the exact degree to which lead poisoning contributes to cardiovascular disease. However, the impressive results of the study depend a lot on the choice of a high risk factor, based on a study only carried out in the United States.
“If they are confirmed, (these results) will be major in terms of public health. But as it stands, they only constitute an interesting hypothesis“, concludes Mr. Harrison.