Lead Levels Linked to High Blood Pressure

Written by Dr. Joseph Mercola Fact Checked

blood pressure monitor

Story at-a-glance -

  • Research reveals lead levels detected in the shin bone are predictive of a 19 percent increased risk of high blood pressure for every 15 micrograms per gram of lead in the bone
  • Scientists have known for decades of the neurological damage triggered by lead, responsible for $53 billion in health care costs, $35 billion in tax revenue losses and $146 million in special education costs
  • Strategies to reduce your exposure to lead include eliminating any lead-based paint in older homes and testing local municipal water supplies for lead; dietary changes and exercise may help reduce your reliance on medication to control your blood pressure
  • Periodontal disease, also associated with high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease, is related to increased inflammatory response in the body

Although lead-based paint has been banned from use in housing since 1978,1 nearly 535,000 children have blood lead levels high enough to damage their health. Nearly 24 million homes still have lead-based paint and contaminated dust, and nearly 5,300 water systems in the U.S. are in violation of lead and copper rules.2

Researchers3 believe conservative estimates of community costs for lead poisoning in children include $53 billion in health care costs, $35 billion in tax revenue losses and $146 million in special education costs. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there is no known identified safe blood level for lead in children or adults.

While lead is a well-recognized neurotoxin,4 a great deal of attention has not been paid to exposure over the years. In fact, in 1923 the U.S. introduced leaded gasoline, triggering near unfathomable repercussions for the global community.

Research has linked lead levels in adults with a higher risk of death from cardiovascular complications.5 A recent study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association6 found low levels of cumulative lead are linked with treatment-resistant high blood pressure (hypertension).

Lead in Bone May Increase Risk of Treatment-Resistant High Blood Pressure

Lead is a heavy metal and the focus of the ongoing water crisis in Flint, Michigan. One study7 estimates 18 percent of all deaths in the U.S. every year can be linked to lead exposure from all sources. This is 10 times more than the current estimate and suggests exposure is largely an ignored risk for cardiovascular disease.

Research led by Sung Kyun Park, associate professor of epidemiology and environmental health sciences, analyzed the association between body lead levels and treatment-resistant hypertension.

Patients are diagnosed with treatment-resistant hypertension if they need three or more medications from different classes of drugs to treat their blood pressure, but continue to experience pressure measurement exceeding the goal for hypertension.

The researchers engaged 475 participants with high blood pressure from a Veterans Affairs Center in Boston, Massachusetts. They tested lead levels in the participants’ blood, and X-rayed their kneecaps and tibia.8

After adjusting for factors such as demographics, age, race and body weight, the data revealed a 19 percent higher risk of treatment-resistant high blood pressure in men for every 15 micrograms per gram of increased lead levels in the tibia.9

Any meaningful associations between lead accumulation in the blood or patella were not found. The researchers wrote,10 "To our knowledge, this is the first study that posits cumulative lead exposure as a risk factor for resistant hypertension development.” Park commented on the results:11 

"Our study demonstrates that cumulative lead burden, as measured by cortical bone in the tibia (shin bone), may be an unrecognized risk factor for drug resistant hypertension. Laws limiting lead exposure have been on the books for decades, but in recent years it is recognized that lead remains an environmental toxin that is still with us.

This likely reflects the long after-effects of historically high lead exposures, which is what shin bone lead partly represents, but it also likely reflects continuing lead exposure from, for example, an aging infrastructure where water pipes in many urban areas are older and contain lead. Since the lead problems in the drinking water in Flint, Michigan, have surfaced, the issue has become more troubling, especially in older U.S. cities."

Periodontal Disease Another Potential Trigger for High Blood Pressure

Yet another factor impacting the ability to keep your blood pressure under control is the presence of tooth decay or periodontal disease. Findings from a recent study,12 published in the journal Hypertension, supports previous findings13 that periodontal disease is associated with rising blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.

The recent study14 found those with periodontal disease were 20 percent less likely to have their blood pressure within healthy limits. Additionally, those whose dental health was poor had, on average, systolic blood pressure readings 3 mm Hg higher than those with healthy gums.

The researchers analyzed data from the annual U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.15 They chose participants over the age of 30 with a known history of hypertension who had undergone a dental exam, including over 3,500 who were currently taking medication to control their high blood pressure.

Based on their dental exams, nearly 52 percent had periodontal disease and most had moderate to severe disease.16 Only 3 percent had mild disease and 12 percent had severe gum disease. Periodontal disease is a chronic inflammation of the gum tissue near the roots of the teeth.

The condition has been linked to higher inflammatory response throughout the body, which may contribute to increasing blood pressure measurements. In analyzing the data, researchers found blood pressure control was poor in those with periodontal disease in all age groups.

The researchers suggested lifestyle measurement changes, such as exercise and a healthy diet as well as treatment for periodontal disease may help to lower blood pressure and potentially limit the need for medications.17

Even Low Levels of Lead Can Raise Your Blood Pressure

Lead also has previous research data18 to support an association between high levels and cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure. Increasing lead levels are associated with oxidative stress and negatively correlated with nitric oxide, which supports endothelial function, healthy blood flow and mitochondrial health.19 

In previous studies20 low-level lead exposure increased blood pressure, and was associated with higher systolic and diastolic measurements. In these studies hypertension was associated with blood lead levels, whereas the featured study did not demonstrate an increased risk of high blood pressure with an increased blood lead level.

In another study,21 researchers evaluated the relationship between blood lead level, blood pressure and kidney function in a population sample of adults located in China in an area with known lead pollution. The study included a cross section sample of nearly 1,450 adults over the age of 20 who underwent physical examinations in 2013.

The data revealed continuous exposure caused an increase in blood lead levels which was positively associated with systolic and diastolic blood pressure increases.22 The results from this study showed an increase in blood pressure was not caused by an alteration in kidney function, one of the known risk factors for hypertension.

Dangers Associated With Untreated High Blood Pressure

Uncontrolled hypertension is the leading cause of heart disease and stroke, also raising the risk for kidney and heart failure. In the U.S., 1 in 3 adults has hypertension and nearly half do not have their blood pressure under control.23 Nearly 13 million U.S. adults with hypertension are not aware they have it, and are not being treated.

Complications associated with untreated and/or treatment-resistant high blood pressure are significant. Excess pressure damages blood vessels, as well as organs in your body. The longer it goes uncontrolled the greater the amount of damage is done. Complications can include:24,25

Heart attack or stroke

Aneurysm

Heart failure

Kidney damage

Vision loss

Metabolic syndrome

Cognitive deficits

Dementia

Peripheral artery disease

Sexual dysfunction

Lead Exposure in Municipal Water Supplies

Although scientists have known lead exposure has toxic effects, the number affected by cardiovascular disease are surprising. In one study,26 20 years of data from 14,000 participants revealed a link between low level exposure to lead and an increased risk of premature death.

From this, researchers calculated nearly 18 percent of deaths in this group could have been prevented by reducing blood level concentrations to 1 microgram per deciliter (mcg/dL). Extrapolating data from the study, researchers determined more than 400,000 deaths in the U.S. each year are likely linked to lead exposure from all sources.

In another study27 gathering data from over 30 years, researchers found nearly 8 percent of Americans were drinking water violating health standards. In any given year in the 33 years when data was collected, between 9 and 45 million people were affected.

According to a report from the National Resources Defense Council, more than 5,300 water systems are in violation of lead and copper rules, yet states took action on only 817 cases and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) took action on just 88 cases.28

The report also found the EPA was aware of many municipalities using loopholes to avoid detecting high levels in their municipal water supply. This means many more communities may be exposing their residents to potentially dangerous levels of lead.

Strategies to Avoid Lead Exposure

Lead is typically measured using mcg/dL. In the past, the CDC found 40 mcg/dL as an acceptable concentration.29 This was reduced to 10 mcg/dL in the early 1990s and subsequently 5 mcg/dL in the mid 2010s. However, despite creating thresholds, the CDC cautions there really is no safe level of lead.30

Both adults and children are adversely affected by lead, including neurological dysfunction and cardiovascular damage. Harvard Medical School offers the following suggestions to protect yourself and your family against lead exposure:31

  • Was your home built before 1978? If so, get it inspected to determine whether it has any lead paint. Lead paint removal should be done by a certified professional to ensure safety. The dust is highly toxic. For more information on this, see the EPA's "Lead-Based Paint Activities Professionals"32 page.
  • Get your water tested for lead.
  • Be mindful of the fact certain household objects may also contain lead. For information about lead-containing products and recalls, see the Consumer Products Safety Commission's website.33
  • Get your child and yourself tested for lead. Ideally, all children should be tested between ages 1 and 2, and again between ages 3 and 4 if you live in an older home. It's also recommended to test your child's level whenever there's concern about exposure. A level of 5 mcg/dL or higher is considered dangerous.

Consider Natural Ways of Reducing Your Blood Pressure

When lead exposure or periodontal disease are not impacting your blood pressure measurements, consider incorporating natural methods of reducing your blood pressure to within normal limits to reduce or eliminate the need for medication. A number of factors contribute to the development of high blood pressure, including but not limited to:

One of the most important dietary changes needed to improve high blood pressure is to eliminate or dramatically reduce sugar and processed fructose from your diet. The easiest way is to replace processed foods with real, whole foods.

This will address not only insulin and leptin resistance, but also elevated uric acid levels. The key is to be sufficiently aggressive in your diet and lifestyle modifications. There are a number of supporting clinical success stories.34

However, if you have seriously elevated blood pressure, it would be wise to be on medication to prevent a stroke while you implement these lifestyle changes. I discuss further drug-free strategies to reduce your blood pressure in my previous article, "Drug-Free Strategies to Lower Your Blood Pressure."