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Experts say it’s important to talk to medical professionals about cardiovascular disease risk. Geber86/Getty Images
  • A new statement shows that chronic exposure to lead, cadmium, and arsenic increases the risk of cardiovascular disease and other negative health outcomes.
  • Regulations have helped curb the levels of these contaminants, but they’re still present in many areas.
  • Older houses, older pipes, and contaminated groundwater are a source of these contaminants, along with certain occupations.
  • These negative effects disproportionately affect those in lower socioeconomic brackets.
  • For most people, the risk remains low, but experts say it’s important to monitor your health and limit exposure.

Despite decades of regulatory work to limit the amount of lead and other toxic metals in the environment, experts say the risk of adverse health effects still remains.

A statement published today in the Journal of the American Heart Association outlines the ways in which chronic exposure to low levels of lead, cadmium, and arsenic can contribute to cardiovascular disease, along with an increased risk of stroke and peripheral artery disease.

The risk varies considerably based on a number of factors, including exposure to contaminated soil, socioeconomic factors, and occupation.

While it’s important to be mindful of these risk factors, an expert interviewed by Medical News Today says that, for most people, there’s little cause for alarm.

Lead poisoning has been present in human settlements for as long as humans have been mining lead, roughly 6,000 years or so.

The connection between lead exposure and negative health outcomes is well understood, but it’s only in the past century that regulations aimed at limiting human exposure to lead have been on the books.

Dr. Ana Navas-Acien, a professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health in New York and director of Columbia’s Northern Plains Superfund Research Program, acted as vice chair of the statement writing group.

She told Medical News Today that there are many potential sources for low level contamination of lead, arsenic and cadmium.

“It’s particularly common in the United States to have arsenic in groundwater, so in many communities where people either have private wells or otherwise rely on that groundwater, arsenic exposure is going to be common,” she explained.

“The exposures are really widespread, and everybody is affected by them, but at different levels,” Navas-Acien added. “One thing that we’ve found, along with other scientists, is that there are quite a lot of disparities to this exposure to contaminants, and that communities of color and lower socioeconomic brackets tend to be exposed to higher levels of these contaminants.”

In areas where infrastructure and construction predates environmental protection laws, there can be heightened risk.

Nima Majlesi, director of medical toxicology at Staten Island University Hospital told Medical News Today that current U.S. regulations prohibit paint from containing more than 0.06% lead.

“However, it is estimated that 3 million tons of lead remain in 57 million homes built before 1980,” he said. “This places children at relatively high risk as toddlers tend to crawl near floors where lead paint dust accumulates and normal hand-mouth activities expose children to these hazards.”

Another factor can be one’s choice of job.

“Highest risk would be automobile mechanics, crystal glass makers, bullet salvagers, lead refiners, welders, construction workers, ship breakers, and battery manufacturers,” Majlesi said.

Other occupations that carry an increased risk would be plumbers, glass blowers, wire and cable workers, pipe fitters and gas station attendants, he added.

“Progress has been made over the decades,” said Navas-Acien. “If we go back a few decades ago, lead exposure was much greater than it is today, so we have seen some improvements. But still, there is a lot of room for improvement.”

A great deal of the responsibility lies with manufacturers and policymakers to limit the level of environmental contaminants. But it’s also possible to curb the risk on an individual level.

With wildfire smoke pollution increasingly in the news, it’s a reminder that air quality is especially important.

“If you can’t change the place where you live, you can change the filtration systems in your home,” said Navas-Acien. “If you live near a highway, for instance, there may be things you want to do to protect yourself from these exposures to air pollution. If you live in a particularly polluted city, consider wearing a mask when you’re outside.”

While there are many ways to limit your exposure to environmental contaminants, it’s important to remember that, outside of high-risk populations and occupations, exposure to these contaminants isn’t necessarily a given.

“Overall, our everyday risk from all of these metals is relatively low for the majority of people,” said Majlesi.

“Panic is unnecessary. Though seafood contains mercury and arsenic, most of the forms of these metals are non-toxic to humans,” he added. “The benefits of seafood in our diet mostly outweigh any unknown risk to these low toxicity forms of heavy metals. Those who work in industries where exposures to these metals is common should have some sort of screening performed by their employers as recommended by OSHA and the Department of Labor.”