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Lead Exposure Greatly Increases Risk of Alzheimer’s

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By Deborah Cooper • • August 16, 2000

Long-term exposure to lead may irreversibly damage the nervous system and dramatically increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s, according to a recent study. People who work in jobs with a high degree of lead exposure are 3.4 times more likely to develop the disease.

“Lead exposure remains a major public concern because of its adverse effects on brain development and health in general, even with low exposure levels,” said lead investigator Professor Elisabeth Ross of Case Western Reserve University. “This study suggests that we also need to be concerned because of very long-lasting changes to the nervous system that may increase the risk for Alzheimer’s disease.”

The study looked at the previous work environments of 185 people with AD and compared them to 303 healthy people. The researchers analyzed the length and levels of toxic exposure in each occupation.

Interestingly, the study not only examined exposure to lead but also to aluminum, copper, iron, mercury, zinc and solvent chemicals such as paint thinners and cleaning fluids. Of these, only lead exposure was linked to an increased risk of Alzheimer’s.

People can be exposed to lead in the workplace in several ways. Most commonly, exposure comes in the form of breathing lead dust, or by direct skin contact. Other examples of activities that could increase exposure are smelting lead, removing lead coatings such as in welding, the heating, machining or spraying of lead products, anything involving the manufacture of lead products such as batteries, using lead glazing in pottery making and production of electronic components.

Koss noted that although there have been recent government regulations aimed at enforcing safer work conditions. “We need to remain vigilant about other sources of lead in the home and in the work place, including decaying old paint, contaminated soil or drinking water, hobbies and occupational exposure.”

Lead has long been known to be toxic, and some scientists believe that even the rulers of the Roman Empire suffered brain damage from lead, which may have contributed to the Empire’s downfall.

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