Lead Exposure News

December 7, 2004

Higher lead concentrations may increase risk of cataracts leading cause of blindness

A new scientific report released in today's Journal of the American Medical Association suggests older men that have high lead concentrations in their bodies have a much higher risk of developing cataracts. Cataracts are the leading cause of blindness.

The first large study to show the adverse effects lead exposure can have in the formation of cataracts, the findings suggest there might be ways to reduce the risk of cataracts.

In the past, cataracts, a clouding of the eye's lens, was believed just a part of growing older. Ways to reduce the risk of developing cataracts would not only provide a more enjoyable lifestyle for many older Americans, but the cost reduction it could have on the federal Medicare program could be extensive as well.

Lead has been either banned or phased out of gasoline and many household products, but it was not until the late 1970s. Once lead enters the body through ingestion or inhalation, the lead remains. It was believed that the lead stored in the bone and other tissues leak out over time, damaging the body's organs, but up until today's study, the effects on lead exposure to the eyes were unknown.

By the time lead began to be phased out or banned, many people had already grown up exposed to the dangers of lead in the environment. More than half of all people age 80 and older have cataracts, and the researchers believe the lead might make the problem even worse.

An environmental medicine expert at the Harvard School of Public Health and one author of the study, Howard Hu, thinks that lead could exacerbate the age-related oxidative damage that afflicts the body, which includes eye cells. Over time, the damage can lead to a clouding of the lens and loss of vision.

Though the study on lead's effects on eyes was only focused on men, the researchers believe the risk is present among women as well. The team plans on conducting a lead study involving women in the near future.

There are ways Americans can reduce their exposure to lead. According to Hu, many people still drink water drawn from leaded pipes and are exposed to deteriorating lead based paint in older homes.

Especially if residing in a home built prior to 1980, it probably contains lead based paints. When this is present, children are at the greatest risk for ingesting and inhaling the lead, which can often mix with dust.

Even though older Americans cannot rid themselves of any stored up lead already in their bodies, a diet heavy in fruits and vegetables, which contain nutrients that might help reduce oxidative damage to the eye, is suggested.



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