April 6, 2004: What is the history of lead poisoning?

This question of the week is just for fun and for those with an interest in toxicology history. 
Lead Poisoning and the Demise of the Ancient Roman Empire

Hence gout and stone afflict the human race;
Hence lazy jaundice with her saffron face;
Palsy, with shaking head and tott'ring knees.
And bloated dropsy, the staunch sot's disease;
Consumption, pale, with keen but hollow eye,
And sharpened feature, shew'd that death was nigh.
The feeble offspring curse their crazy sires,
And, tainted from his birth, the youth expires.
(Description of lead poisoning by an anonymous Roman hermit,
Translated by Humelbergius Secundus, 1829)
Lead was one of the earliest metals discovered by the human race and was used as early as 3000 B.C. (Kinder) The ancient Romans and Greeks were the first to discover its toxic effects. Hippocrates (370 B.C.) attributed a severe case of colic in a worker who extracted metals to lead poisoning, and Pliny the Elder (A.D. 23–79) wrote that workers painting ships with native ceruse (white lead) wore loose bags over their faces to avoid breathing noxious dust (Hunter)
The ancient Romans used lead for making cooking utensils, storage vessels, lining baths, and constructing water pipes. The water pipes were the vital arteries of ancient Rome and were forged by laborers whose patron saint, Vulcan, exhibited several of the symptoms of advanced lead poisoning: lameness, pallor, and wizened expression (Lewis). When soft water sits in lead pipes, it leaches the metal into the drinking water. In ancient Rome, the rich controlled most of the public water outlets. The first drawn water of the morning, which had been sitting over night absorbing lead, was a privilege of the rich. The plumber’s job was to join and mends pipes took his name from the Latin word plumbum, meaning lead. Plumbum is also the origin of the chemical symbol for lead (Pb) the 82nd element on the periodic table.

The Ancients regarded lead as the father of all metals, and the deity they associated with lead was the Roman God Saturn, who was best known for devouring his own young. The word "saturnine," describes an individual whose temperament has become uniformly gloomy and cynical, the result of lead intoxication. (Lewis)

The Romans were aware that lead could cause serious health problems, even madness and death. Nonetheless, ancient Romans, like present-day Americans, did not realize that everyday low-level exposure to the metal rendered them vulnerable to chronic lead toxicity.

The symptoms of acute lead intoxication appeared most dramatically among slaves forced to become lead miners and smelters. Many in bondage were condemned to spend all of their lives underground in lead mines throughout the Empire. 

Roman aristocrats, on the other hand, regarded hard labor as beneath their dignity and suffered chronic poisoning as a result of a rich life style, glutinous diet, and consumption of lead-adulterated wine. Wine was cheap in ancient Rome and Athens and it was contaminated with lead from several sources during its preparation. Lead was also used as part of the preservative and as a flavor enhancer or sweetener.  The rich received a disproportionate share of lead exposure because they could afford more of the sources of lead contamination.  Musonius, a Roman writing in the first century A.D., observed that masters were weaker, less healthy and unable to endure labor of the servant class. Those who grew up in the country were stronger than those who grew up in the city. Those who ate plain food were likely to live longer and have less of the diseases associated with lead poisoning. These were "gouts," "dropsies" and colics." This was the first record of anyone hypothesizing and documenting chronic lead poisoning in the Roman Empire. (Nriagu)

According to many modern scholars, chronic lead poisoning contributed to the demise of the Roman Empire. Symptoms of "plumbism" were apparent as early as the 1st century B.C. manifesting in Julius Caesar and his successor Caesar Augustus as sterility and loss of sexual libido. The 1st century A.D. was a time of “unbridled gluttony and drunkenness” among the rulers of Rome. The lead concealed in food and wine they consumed led to epidemics of saturnine gout and sterility among aristocratic males and a high rate of infertility, stillbirths and infant mortality from upper class women.

Still more striking was the pattern of mental incompetence that came to be synonymous with the Roman monarchy; best exhibited by degenerate emperors such as Caligula, Nero, and Commodus.  It is documented that Emperor Nero “wore a breastplate of lead, as he fiddled and sang while Rome burned”. Domitian, the last of the Roman dictators, actually had a fountain installed in his palace from which he could drink “a never-ending stream of leaded wine”. Historical scholar Nriagu concludes that lead contamination was a major cause of the decline of the Roman Empire. 

As always, if there are any questions, call the TPC.

I am interested in any questions that you would like answered in “Question of 
The Week.”  Please e-mail me with any suggestions at donna.seger@vanderbilt.edu

Donna Seger, M.D.
Medical Director, Tennessee Poison Center