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Lead Toxic Effects

One could think that the massive use of lead made in recent history was in absence of any knowledge of its toxicity. This concept is far remote from the actual historical truth.

In 14 B.C., the Roman architect Vitruvius noted pale complexions and other ailments in workers who used lead on the job. In his book De Architectura, he suggested that when water moves through leaded pipes, "the lead receives the current of air, the fumes from it occupy the members of the body, and burning them thereupon, rob the limbs of the virtues of the blood. Therefore, it seems that water should not be brought in lead pipes if we desire it to be wholesome." The warning went unheeded. In 370 B.C., the Greek physician Hippocrates had already described colic, or upset stomach, in a man who was a metal worker. (reference)

In the first century A.D., Dioscorides, another Greek physician, noticed that exposure to lead could cause paralysis and delirium in addition to intestinal problems and swelling. References to paralysis in lead-exposed miners increased in Europe in the 1600's, as did reports of colic in wine-drinkers. As reports such as these became more widespread, some began taking advantage of lead’s toxicity. Members of the French nobility, for example, called lead "poudre de la succession" in reference to its poisonous potency.

As the American colonists became enamored of lead in the early 1700's, reports of medical complications followed close behind. Benjamin Franklin wrote a letter to a friend in 1786, recalling his own encounters with the toxic metal. "The first Thing I remember of this kind, was a general Discourse in Boston when I was a Boy," he wrote, "of a Complaint from North Carolina against New England Rum, that it poisoned their People, giving them the Dry Bellyach, with a Loss of the Use of their Limbs."(reference)

Franklin goes on to describe his work in a London printing house in 1724. Two of his co-workers had already lost the use of their hands after years of holding leaded type close to the fire to dry. Their misfortunes, along "with a kind of obscure Pain that I had sometimes felt as it were in the Bones of my Hand when working over the Types made very hot, induced me to omit the Practice."

Recent chemical analyses suggest that lead poisoning may have also contributed to the death of Ludwig van Beethoven in 1827 at age 57. Experts have long debated what caused the German composer’s poor health, digestive problems, abdominal pain, irritability and depression.

Despite Franklin’s warnings, the United States was, by the twentieth century, the world’s leading producer and consumer of refined lead. In a 1980 report, Lead in the Human Environment, the National Academy of Sciences estimated that the United States was using 1.3 million tons of lead each year, approximately 40% of the world’s supply. That figure translates to more than 5 kilograms of lead per person each year, ten times more lead and lead-containing products than were used by the citizens of ancient Rome. Most of that lead was used as an additive in gasoline and as the primary pigment in house paint. Smaller amounts were used as solder in plumbing and in other household objects.

See also: Lead additives, Lead as toxic element, Beethoven, Home lead poisoning, Lead in history, Lead letter, Occupational disease, Toxic effects, Toxicology