Lead exposure by drinking water: an epidemiological study in Hamburg

Study objective was to investigate the extent of lead exposure via tap water in Hamburg and the relevance of preventive strategies. Two hundred and forty-eight non-smoking young women participated in the cross-sectional study program and 52 women completed the intervention program. In the cross-sectional study program most women (N=178) didn't know anything about the material of the plumbing system at their homes. Participants with lead in the tap water above the detection limit of 5μg/l (N=142) showed significantly higher blood lead levels (median 31μg/l) compared to those with no detectable lead in the tap water (N=106; median blood lead 24μg/l, p<=0.001). There is a close correlation between the average lead concentration in the tap water and blood lead concentrations (N=142 value pairs, Spearman's rho 0.43, p<=0.0001).

In the intervention program, the women were asked to minimize exposure by flushing water or to exclude it by consuming bottled water. Intervention lowered blood lead-level significantly (median decrease of 11μg/l, p<=0.001). “Minimizers” could lower their blood lead levels by about 21% of the initial value, “excluders” by about 37% (ns, p<=0.17). The majority judged neither minimizing nor excluding tap water as practicable health preventive behaviour pattern in the long run. Lead in tap water stands for an avoidable surplus exposure. These results underline the relevance of health care preventive measures for the most sensitive groups.

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