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Lead-related nephrotoxicity: A review of the epidemiologic evidence

Chronic kidney disease (CKD) represents a major global public health concern. Efforts to prevent and/or slow progression of CKD are essential. Lead nephropathy, characterized by chronic tubulointerstitial nephritis, is a well-known risk of chronic, high-level lead exposure. However, in recent years, lead exposure has declined sharply, particularly in developed countries. We reviewed epidemiologic research in general, occupational, and patient populations to assess whether lead, at current exposure levels, still contributes to nephrotoxicity. Other pertinent topics, such as risk in children, genetic susceptibility, and coexposure to cadmium, are also considered.

The data reviewed indicate that lead contributes to nephrotoxicity, even at blood lead levels below 5 mug/dl. This is particularly true in susceptible populations, such as those with hypertension (HTN), diabetes, and/or CKD. Low socioeconomic status is a risk factor for both lead exposure and diseases that increase susceptibility. Future public health risk for lead-related nephrotoxicity may be most significant in those rapidly developing countries where risk factors for CKD, including obesity and secondary HTN and diabetes mellitus, are increasing more rapidly than lead exposure is declining. Global efforts to reduce lead exposure remain important. Research is also needed to determine whether specific therapies, such as chelation, are beneficial in susceptible populations.