New study links lead exposure with increased risk of cataract

Results from a new study show that lifetime lead exposure may increase the risk of developing cataracts. Researchers found that men with high levels of lead in the tibia, the larger of the two leg bones below the knee, had a 2.5-fold increased risk for cataract, the leading cause of blindness and visual impairment.

"These results suggest that reducing exposure of the public to lead and lead compounds could lead to a significant decrease in the overall incidence of cataract," said Kenneth Olden, Ph.D., director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, one of the National Institutes of Health, provided support to researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health and Brigham and Women's Hospital for the nine-year study, which is also focusing on lead's contribution to hypertension and impairment of kidney and cognitive function. The findings on risk of cataract are published in the December 8th issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Lead is found in lead-based paint, contaminated soil, household dust, drinking water, lead crystal, and lead-glazed pottery. Following exposure to lead, the compound circulates in the bloodstream and eventually concentrates in the bone.

The Harvard researchers tested whether bone lead levels measured in both the tibia and patella, also known as the kneecap, were associated with cataract in an ongoing study of men taken from the Boston area.

"Given the strong association between tibia lead and cataract in men, we estimate that lead exposure plays a significant role in approximately 42 percent of all cataracts in this population," said Debra Schaumberg, Sc.D., assistant professor of medicine and ophthalmology at Harvard Medical School and lead author of the study. "While lead in both the tibia and patella was associated with an increased risk of cataract, tibia lead was the best predictor of cataract in the s

Contact: John Peterson
NIH/National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences

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