Blood Lead Levels and Risk of Atherosclerosis in the Carotid Artery: Results from a Swedish Cohort

Environ Health Perspect. 2019 Dec;127(12):127002. doi: 10.1289/EHP5057. Epub 2019 Dec 6.


Background: Lead exposure has been associated with increased incidence of adverse clinical cardiovascular outcomes. Atherosclerosis has been suggested as one of the underlying mechanisms, and findings from experimental studies support this, but human data are scarce.

Objectives: Our objective was to determine the association between environmental lead exposure based on blood lead (B-Pb) concentrations and the prevalence of atherosclerotic plaque in the carotid artery.

Methods: We used cross-sectional data from the Malmö Diet and Cancer Study cardiovascular cohort (MDCS-CC; recruitment in 1991-1994) covering 4,172 middle-aged men and women. B-Pb at baseline, measured by inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry, was used as the exposure biomarker. The presence of atherosclerotic plaque in the carotid artery was determined by B-mode ultrasonography. We used logistic regression to estimate odds ratios (ORs) for prevalence of plaque in the carotid artery according to B-Pb quartiles.

Results: The median B-Pb was 25μg/L (range: 1.5-258), and 36% of the cohort had any atherosclerotic plaque. After controlling for confounders and known cardiovascular risk factors, the OR for prevalence of plaque in the highest quartile (Q4) of B-Pb compared with the lowest quartile (Q1) was 1.35 (95% CI: 1.09, 1.66) in the total group, 1.58 (95% CI: 1.20, 2.08) among women, and 1.18 (95% CI: 0.83, 1.69) among men. Among women, associations were limited to those who were postmenopausal [OR for Q4 vs. Q1=1.72 (95% CI: 1.26, 2.34) vs. OR=0.96 (95% CI: 0.49, 1.89 in premenopausal women)]. Associations were weak and nonsignificant in never-smokers [OR for Q4 vs. Q1=1.14 (95% CI: 0.81, 1.61)].

Discussion: Our study shows an association between B-Pb concentrations and occurrence of atherosclerotic plaque in the carotid artery, adding evidence for an underlying pro-atherogenic role of lead in cardiovascular disease. Associations appeared to be limited to postmenopausal (vs. premenopausal) women.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Atherosclerosis / epidemiology*
  • Carotid Arteries*
  • Environmental Exposure / statistics & numerical data*
  • Environmental Pollutants / blood*
  • Lead / blood*
  • Sweden / epidemiology


  • Environmental Pollutants
  • Lead