A recent study from researchers at Mount Sinai’s School of Medicine found a correlation between blood lead levels in Black Americans and their risk of severe liver fibrosis, causing researchers to question whether environmental toxins can lead to disease epidemics.
What were the findings?
In an article from Stat News, Isabella Cueto broke down the results. The researchers surveyed blood sample data from nearly 43,000 Americans from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Specifically, they gathered information on the levels of various toxins and cross-analyzed those levels with the severity of liver injury and disease.
And while most demographic groups presented a correlation between liver disease and levels of cadmium — a toxin commonly found in batteries, plastics, and cigarette smoke, among others — the Black participants presented a stronger correlation with levels of lead.
“It’s true that [environmental pollutants] are sort of ubiquitous, but they aren’t uniformly distributed. And I think that’s part of what’s so disturbing,” said Andrea Branch, the professor of medicine who led the study.
Why is this correlation concerning?
It’s important to note that this is not proof that low-level environmental toxins cause liver damage. However, as Cueto writes, it “highlights a growing theory among some researchers: that our chronic disease epidemic might be driven at least in part by the very environments we inhabit.”
It’s not a new finding that Black communities are at particular risk for exposure to environmental toxins. Numerous studies have highlighted disproportionate levels of air pollution; other events, like the Flint Water Crisis, have demonstrated a lack of access to clean drinking water. Lead is no exception. For example, Chicago — the city with the third-highest Black population, per Black Demographics — also has the most lead service lines, totaling nearly half a million, reported ABC 7 in Chicago.
Furthermore, with previously unknown sources of lead pollution being discovered frequently, additional populations may be at risk. “Forever chemicals” have already been linked to fatalities in livestock, and we’re only beginning to understand the danger they pose to humans.
What’s being done to combat these effects?
Etiology, epidemiology, and their interactions with environmental pollutants pose a complicated set of questions for researchers, so continued research is of paramount importance. Fortunately, this is a subject that has been receiving increased attention. While environmental health researchers such as Matt Cave, a professor at the University of Louisville School of Medicine, used to be relegated to the “far end of the hall” at conferences, per Stat News, the number of studies in the field has grown significantly in the past decade.
And for the average citizen, one way to help is to advocate for increased attention and resources for these issues — whether that’s through local government or your workplace.
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