Lead poisoning was among the first known and most widely studied work regarding environmental hazards. One of the first metals to be smelted and used, lead is thought to have been discovered and first mined in Anatolia around 6500 BCE. Its density, workability, and corrosion resistance were among the metal’s attractions.
In the 2nd century BCE, the Greek botanist Nicander described the colic and paralysis seen in lead-poisoned people. Dioscorides, a Greek physician who lived in the 1st century CE, wrote that lead makes the mind “give way”.
Lead was used extensively in Roman aqueducts from about 500 BCE to 300 CE Julius Caesar’s engineer, Vitruvius, reported, “water is much more wholesome from earthenware pipes than from lead pipes. For it seems to be made injurious by lead, because white lead is produced by it, and this is said to be harmful to the human body.” Gout, prevalent in affluent Rome, is thought to be the result of lead, or leaded eating and drinking vessels. Sugar of lead (lead(II) acetate) was used to sweeten wine, and the gout that resulted from this was known as “saturnine” gout. It is even hypothesized that lead poisoning may have contributed to the decline of the Roman Empire, a hypothesis thoroughly disputed:
“The great disadvantage of lead has always been that it is poisonous. This was fully recognised by the ancients, and Vitruvius specifically warns against its use. Because it was nevertheless used in profusion for carrying drinking water, the conclusion has often been drawn that the Romans must therefore have suffered from lead poisoning; sometimes conclusions are carried even further and it is inferred that this caused infertility and other unwelcome conditions, and that lead plumbing was largely responsible for the decline and fall of Rome. Two things make this otherwise attractive hypothesis impossible. First, the calcium carbonate deposit that formed so thickly inside the aqueduct channels also formed inside the pipes, effectively insulating the water from the lead, so that the two never touched. Second, because the Romans had so few taps and the water was constantly running, it was never inside the pipes for more than a few minutes, and certainly not long enough to become contaminated.”
However, recent research supports the idea that the lead found in the water came from the supply pipes, rather than another source of contamination. It was not unknown for locals to punch holes in the pipes to draw water off, increasing the number of people exposed to the lead.
“Thirty years ago, Jerome Nriagu argued in a milestone paper that Roman civilization collapsed as a result of lead poisoning. Clair Patterson, the scientist who convinced governments to ban lead from gasoline, enthusiastically endorsed this idea, which nevertheless triggered a volley of publications aimed at refuting it. Although today lead is no longer seen as the prime culprit of Rome’s demise, its status in the system of water distribution by lead pipes (fistulæ) still stands as a major public health issue. By measuring Pb isotope compositions of sediments from the Tiber River and the Trajanic Harbor, the present work shows that “tap water” from ancient Rome had 100 times more lead than local spring waters.”
Romans also consumed lead through the consumption of defrutum, carenum, and sapa, musts made by boiling down fruit in lead cookware. Defrutum and its relatives were used in ancient Roman cuisine and cosmetics, including as a food preservative. The use of leaden cookware, though popular, was not the general standard and copper cookware was used far more generally. There is also no indication how often sapa was added or in what quantity.
The consumption of sapa as having a role in the fall of the Roman Empire was used in a theory proposed by geochemist Jerome Nriagu to state that “lead poisoning contributed to the decline of the Roman Empire”. In 1984, John Scarborough, a pharmacologist and classicist, criticized the conclusions drawn by Nriagu’s book as “so full of false evidence, miscitations, typographical errors, and a blatant flippancy regarding primary sources that the reader cannot trust the basic arguments.”
After antiquity, mention of lead poisoning was absent from medical literature until the end of the Middle Ages. In 1656, the German physician Samuel Stockhausen recognized dust and fumes containing lead compounds as the cause of disease, called since ancient Roman times morbi metallici, that were known to afflict miners, smelter workers, potters, and others whose work exposed them to the metal.
The painter Caravaggio might have died of lead poisoning. Bones with high lead levels were recently found in a grave thought likely to be his. Paints used at the time contained high amounts of lead salts. Caravaggio is known to have exhibited violent behavior, a symptom commonly associated with lead poisoning.
In 17th-century Germany, the physician Eberhard Gockel discovered lead-contaminated wine to be the cause of an epidemic of colic. He had noticed that monks who did not drink wine were healthy, while wine drinkers developed colic, and traced the cause to sugar of lead, made by simmering litharge with vinegar. As a result, Eberhard Ludwig, Duke of Württemberg issued an edict in 1696 banning the adulteration of wines with litharge.
In the 18th century, lead poisoning was fairly frequent on account of the widespread drinking of rum, which was made in stills with a lead component (the “worm”). It was a significant cause of mortality amongst slaves and sailors in the colonial West Indies. Lead poisoning from rum was also noted in Boston. Benjamin Franklin suspected lead to be a risk in 1786. Also in the 18th century, “Devonshire colic” was the name given to the symptoms suffered by people of Devon who drank cider made in presses that were lined with lead. Lead was added to cheap wine illegally in the 18th and early 19th centuries as a sweetener. The composer Beethoven, a heavy wine drinker, suffered elevated lead levels (as later detected in his hair) possibly due to this; the cause of his death is controversial, but lead poisoning is a contender as a factor.
With the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century, lead poisoning became common in the work setting. The introduction of lead paint for residential use in the 19th century increased childhood exposure to lead; for millennia before this, most lead exposure had been occupational. An important step in the understanding of childhood lead poisoning occurred when toxicity in children from lead paint was recognized in Australia in 1897. France, Belgium, and Austria banned white lead interior paints in 1909; the League of Nations followed suit in 1922. However, in the United States, laws banning lead house paint were not passed until 1971, and it was phased out and not fully banned until 1978.
The 20th century saw an increase in worldwide lead exposure levels due to the increased widespread use of the metal. Beginning in the 1920s, lead was added to gasoline to improve its combustion; lead from this exhaust persists today in soil and dust in buildings. Blood lead levels worldwide have been declining sharply since the 1980s, when leaded gasoline began to be phased out. In those countries that have banned lead in solder for food and drink cans and have banned leaded gasoline additives, blood lead levels have fallen sharply since the mid-1980s.
The levels found today in most people are orders of magnitude greater than those of pre-industrial society. Due to reductions of lead in products and the workplace, acute lead poisoning is rare in most countries today, but low level lead exposure is still common. It was not until the second half of the 20th century that subclinical lead exposure became understood to be a problem. During the end of the 20th century, the blood lead levels deemed acceptable steadily declined. Blood lead levels once considered safe are now considered hazardous, with no known safe threshold.