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Lead Poisoning: A Historical Perspective

by Jack Lewis

The ancients regarded lead as the father of all metals, but the deity they associated with the substance was Saturn, the ghoulish titan who devoured his own young.

In the  world of the ancients, lead was the  metal deemed suitable for a vast variety of everyday uses. Lead products were, to a certain degree, accessible even to the poorest. But only the chosen few were at the top of the social pole were able to regularly indulge their craving for lead-containing products.

Lead was a key component in face powders, rouges, and mascaras; the pigment in many paints ("crazy as a painter" was an ancient catch phrase rooted in the demented behavior of lead-poisoned painters); a nifty spermicide for informal birth control; the ideal "cold" metal for use in the manufacture of chastity belts; a sweet and sour condiment popular for seasoning and adulterating food; a wine preservative perfect for stopping fermentation or disguising inferior vintages; the malleable and inexpensive ingredient in pewter cups, plates, pitchers, pots and pans, and other household artifacts; the basic component of lead coins; and a partial ingredient in debased bronze or brass coins as well as counterfeit silver and gold coins.

Most important of all was lead's suitability as inexpensive and reliable piping for the vast network plumbing that kept Rome and the provincial cities of the Roman Empire supplied with water. Indeed, the very word "plumbing" comes from the Latin word for lead,plumbum. The lead pipes that were the vital arteries of ancient Rome were forged by smithies whose patron saint, Vulcan, exhibited several of the symptoms of advanced lead poisoning: lameness, pallor, and wizened expression.

Addicted to Lead

The Romans were aware that lead could cause serious health problems, even madness and death. However, they were so fond of its diverse uses that they minimized the hazards it posed. Romans of yesteryear, like Americans of today, equated limited exposure to lead with limited risk. What they did not realize was that their everyday low-level exposure to the metal rendered them vulnerable to chronic lead poisoning, even while it spared them the full horrors of acute lead poisoning.

The symptoms of acute lead intoxication appeared most vividly among miners who were thrown into unhealthy intimacy with the metal on a daily basis. Romans reserved such debilitating and backbreaking labor for slaves. Some of these unfortunates were forced to spend all of their brief and blighted lives underground, out of sight and out of mind. The unpleasantness of lead mining was further neutralized late in the Empire when the practice was prohibited in Italy and consigned completely to the provinces.

Lead smelting, which had once been commonplace in every Roman city and town, eventually followed mining operations to the provinces. Italy, the heart of imperial Rome, grew tired of the noxious fumes emanating from lead smelting forges.

According to many modern scholars, was the death by slow poisoning of the greatest empire the world has ever known. Symptoms of "plumbism" or lead poisoning were already apparent as early as the first century B.C. Julius Caesar for all his sexual ramblings was unable to beget more than one known offspring. Caesar Augustus, his successor, displayed not only total sterility but also a cold indifference to sex due to plumbum.

The first century A.D. was a time of unbridled gluttony and drunkenness among the ruling oligarchs of Rome. The lead concealed in the food and wine they devoured undoubtedly had a great deal to do with the outbreak of unprecedented epidemics of gout and sterility among aristocratic males and the alarming rate of infertility and stillbirths among aristocratic women.

Still more alarming was the conspicuous pattern of mental incompetence that came to be synonymous with the Roman elite. This  manifested itself most  degenerate emperors as Caligula, Nero, and Commodus. It is said that Nero wore a breastplate of lead, ostensibly to strengthen his voice, as he fiddled and sang while Rome burned. Domitian, the last of the Flavian emperors, actually had a fountain installed in his palace from which he could drink a never-ending stream of leaded wine.

Medieval and Renaissance Lead

During the Middle Ages, lead was widely used by alchemists as a key component in procedures thought to be capable of generating gold from baser metals. Lead served an even more lofty function when leaded type launched Gutenberg's galaxy late in the fifteenth century. Mass printing was crucial to the eradication of ignorance that led to the upheavals of the Reformation and the Enlightenment.

 Lead was known to be extremely convenient for eliminating inconvenient relatives. In fact, the world-weary French jokingly referred to the metal as poudre de la succession -- or succession powder.

Lead mining and smelting began in the New World almost as soon as the first colonists were settled. By 1621 the metal was being mined and forged in Virginia. The low melting temperature of lead made it highly malleable, even at the most primitive forges. Furthermore, lead's resistance to corrosion greatly enhanced its strength and durability. Technological progress in the American colonies and the American republic was to owe a great deal to this useful and abundant metal.

By the twentieth century, the U.S. had emerged as the world's leading producer and consumer of refined lead.  United States was by 1980 consuming about 1.3 million tons of lead per year. This quantity, which represents roughly 40 percent of the world's supply, translates into a usage rate of 5,221 grams of lead per American per annum: a rate of dependence on lead and lead-containing products nearly ten times greater than that of the ancient Romans! According to Jerome O. Nriagu, the world's leading authority on lead poisoning in antiquity, the comparable Roman rate of lead usage was approximately 550 grams per person per year.

Not the least significant of those U.S. lead uses, although the one subject to the sharpest decline in the past decade, has been in the automotive industry. Since 1923 -- with a brief interruption in 1925 -- the U.S. has made extensive use of tetraethyl lead as an anti-knock, octane-boosting gasoline additive.

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