Killing millions and lowering IQs, lead is a greater global threat than previously measured, studies show

New research surveys tainted household products and analyzes worldwide toll of the dangerous chemical, urging governments to expand blood testing for lead poisoning.

September 15, 2023
Blood lead level testing
Five-month-old Dakota Erler of Flint, Michigan, gets blood drawn from her heel in order to have her blood lead levels tested at Carriage Town Ministries in Flint, Mich., on Thursday, February 4, 2016. Brittany Greeson for The Washington Post via Getty Images

Deemed a “forgotten” problem, lead presents a deadly threat to millions of people worldwide as the chemical continues to surface in everything from cookware to cosmetics, new research shows. 

Two separate studies released this week reveal new information about the long-standing risk from exposure to the heavy metal. 

One, published this week in The Lancet, estimates that the heavy metal and chemical – still found in cookware, paint, toys and even food worldwide – may have caused the deaths of 5.5 million adults from heart disease alone in 2019. It also found that young children collectively lost hundreds of millions of IQ points due to lead exposure, stunting development and exacerbating inequality.

The study, which says it’s the first global accounting of its kind, suggests that exposure to lead may pose as serious a health crisis as air pollution, and kills three times as many people as unsafe drinking water. Most of those who suffer live in poorer countries, according to the analysis by researchers at the World Bank.

“Most people thought that we solved the problem,” Bjorn Larsen, the primary author of the study, told The Examination.

“It has become a forgotten issue.”

While nearly every country has banned lead in gasoline and many, including the United States, outlawed lead in paint decades ago, the chemical element is still widespread. Lead paint, for example, is unregulated in more than 100 countries, according to one estimate.

It is now clearer than ever that lead is the most damaging chemical pollutant to global public health.

Drew McCartor, Pure Earth

The analysis found that deaths from cardiovascular disease caused by lead were six times higher than previously reported and that the loss of IQ points among children – a major factor in a child’s future ability to learn, earn money and avoid poverty –  was 80% higher than one widely-cited estimate.

“Lead is the third leading factor for cardiovascular disease after high blood pressure and dietary risks – ahead of tobacco smoking and cholesterol,” Larsen said. “This puts lead on a whole different place on the map.”

Earlier this year, The American Heart Association released findings that chronic exposure to lead can increase the risk of cardiovascular diseases, including strokes.

The study in The Lancet estimated that exposure to lead cost countries $6 trillion in 2019, with poorer nations paying twice as much as wealthier ones.

It recommends that governments urgently expand medical research, including regular blood tests to identify lead poisoning in countries where data and resources are limited.

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While it does not discuss possible sources of lead exposure, the study urges that more work be done to identify who and what is behind the global public health threat.

Some significant threats are well-documented. For years, scientific research and lawsuits have shown that battery recycling operators from Kenya to Mexico have released the metal into the air and waterways. Elsewhere, authorities in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have prosecuted companies for lacing some foods with lead pigments, enhancing colors and increasing profits. 

International survey finds household items tainted with lead

To determine the scale of lead contamination in day-to-day life, a separate study published this week analyzed more than 5,000 common household products from 25 countries.

Pure Earth, a U.S.-based nonprofit that researches pollution and works with governments to clean-up contaminated sites, released results on Tuesday showing that products such as cooking pots and makeup from Armenia to the Philippines contained potentially dangerous levels of lead.  

Nearly one in every five samples tested by Pure Earth exceeded common health guidelines, according to the study, billed as the largest and most diverse survey of its kind to date. 

Ceramic and metallic cookware, including aluminum pans and utensils as well as glazed clay pots, contained the highest levels of lead, the survey found. Tainted items included those made at home from scrap metal as well as items manufactured commercially and sold online.

Eyeliner, mascara and liquid concealer also contained potentially dangerous levels of lead, according to the report, which recommends that governments better track products and the companies that make them. In Azerbaijan, more than two-thirds of toy samples exceeded lead levels considered to require attention or medical intervention, Pure Earth found.

Echoing World Bank researchers, the report recommends that poorer countries increase monitoring of lead in the blood of children.

“It is now clearer than ever that lead is the most damaging chemical pollutant to global public health,” Pure Earth Executive Director, Drew McCartor, said in a statement.

The Examination

Will Fitzgibbon

Will Fitzgibbon is a senior reporter and the global partnership coordinator for The Examination.