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03 Nov 2017

More than a century since a Brisbane doctor found that lead in paint destroyed children’s lives, new research from Griffith University concludes that it is a major risk factor for pre-eclampsia. 

Pre-eclampsia is a disease which kills more than 75,000 women around the world each year and is responsible for 9 per cent of all fetal deaths.

Scientists from Griffith University have published their findings in Environmental Research, which measured blood lead levels of pregnant women who experienced pre-eclampsia and control groups of women who did not experience preeclampsia. 

“We combined the data from a number of clinical trials to conduct a powerful analysis of pre-eclampsia research,” said Dr Arthur Poropat from Griffith Health. 

Along with Dr Mark Laidlaw from RMIT University, the team found that blood lead levels are the strongest predictor of whether a pregnant woman will develop pre-eclampsia, with even relatively low levels of lead increasing the risk of the condition.

“There is a clear dose-response relationship between maternal blood lead and pre-eclampsia: doubling the blood lead level results also doubles the risk of pre-eclampsia,” Dr Poropat said.

Pre-eclampsia is a potentially fatal disease, in which pregnant women develop high blood pressure and protein in their urine due to kidney malfunction, potentially leading to cardiac and/or kidney failure, and eventual disability or death. 

Reducing exposure to lead remains an important health issue in Australia because lead can be found in various sources throughout the environment. 

Dr Poropat said women are exposed to lead in many ways, including lead paint, lead contaminated soils, lead water pipes, shooting lead bullets at firing ranges and other sources. Women can even be exposed by handling or washing lead contaminated clothes.

“Fortunately, most people in Australia are not at risk of lead poisoning as they are not commonly exposed to lead via their occupation or the environment. However there are certain well-documented risk areas within the country including the industrial regions of Broken Hill (NSW/SA), Mount Isa (QLD) and Port Pirie (SA). 

“Regardless of where women are located or their lifestyle, women should be aware of the risks associated with lead poisoning if they are preparing to become pregnant or are currently pregnant,” Dr Poropat said.

Lead, a naturally occurring metal found in the earth’s crust, has a wide variety of uses in manufacturing. Unlike many other naturally found metals, lead and lead compounds are not beneficial or necessary for human health, and can be harmful to the human body. Infants, children and pregnant women are at the greatest risk of harm from lead.

Professor Mark Taylor from Macquarie University in Sydney led a study that was published earlier this year which was the first comprehensive snapshot of industrial lead contamination in Australia.

This study found that while concentration of lead in the air in major cities is now largely below limits of detection, contaminated soil and dust is causing problems in backyards. 

Professor Taylor believes that regulation has reduced concentrations of lead in air largely below limits of detection in our major cities. However, he warns homeowners need to be careful, especially if they live in the inner city or have homes built before the 1970s.


Published: 03 Nov 2017