The study concluded that almost 30% of all deaths due to cardiovascular disease - basically, heart attacks and strokes - "could be attributable to lead exposure".
People are more likely to suffer health complications from smoking, but lead exposure is far more common.
The link held even at low-level exposure to lead. Lanphear and colleagues suggests that even lower levels of lead exposure can pose significant harm to health.
Lanphear concluded that lead could be responsible for as much as 18% of all mortalities, or 412,000 deaths.
The study used data from the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES-III) for 14289 people in the U.S. aged 20 years or older between 1988 and 1994, and the end of 2011.
A recent study tells about the health hazards of lead exposure for the people's health.
Subjects were enrolled in the study between 1988 and 1994.More news: Google co-founder's Kitty Hawk unveils its electric autonomous flying taxi
Using these risk levels, the authors also estimated the current proportion of deaths in adults aged 44 years or older in the U.S. that could have been prevented if historical exposure to lead had not occurred.
Baseline blood lead levels ranged from less than 1 μg/dL to 56 μg/dL.
The study's authors noted that outside factors could lead to "overestimation of the effect of concentrations of lead in blood, particularly from socioeconomic and occupational factors".
Over an average 19.3 years of follow-up, a total of 4,422 deaths occurred.
People with the highest lead levels had a 37% greater risk than normal of a premature death and a 70% greater risk of death from cardiovascular disease.
"Lead tends to stay around in the body once it has entered it, so the blood lead levels of the people in this study will have been affected by exposure to lead throughout their lives: including exposure to lead in petrol before it was banned, and exposure from lead-based paint or lead drinking water pipes when those were more common than they are now".
He added: "This study suggests that lead, or factors that increase people's exposure to lead, causes thousands more deaths every year than we previously recognised". Of these, around 256,000 are from CVD.More news: Baystate Wealth Management LLC Purchases 300 Shares of UnitedHealth Group Inc (UNH)
These results were adjusted for age, sex, household income, ethnic origin, diabetes, BMI, smoking status, alcohol consumption, diet, physical activity, and amount of cadmium in urine.
Writing in a linked Comment, Professor Philip Landrigan, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, USA, says: "A recurrent theme in lead poisoning research has been the realization that lead has toxic effects on multiple organ systems at relatively low levels of exposure previously thought to be safe..."
Prof. Lanphear and team admit that there are some limitations to their research. All were given a medical examination at the start of the study that included a blood test for lead, with readings ranging from less than 1mg per decilitre of blood to 56mg.
An worldwide study has found that low-level lead exposure could be responsible for 30 per cent of premature deaths from cardiovascular disease in the United States.
Additionally, they note that they could not control for exposure to other contaminants that might affect cardiovascular health, such as arsenic or air pollution.
Of environmental lead exposure, he said: "If we took that seriously, without knowing anything more about genetics, without any more expensive drugs, we could much more strategically reduce deaths from heart disease, which is pretty hopeful, actually".
Still, these results indicate that lead exposure could have a larger impact on our health than we thought.More news: The $199 Fitbit Versa Is "the Lightest Metal Smartwatch in the US"
The researchers called for more aggressive measures to retire contaminated housing, phase out lead-laden jet fuels, replace lead pipes in plumbing, and reduce emissions from smelters and lead battery factories.