The victim had complained of abdominal pain for two to three years which had become worse about ten weeks before his death. His red blood cells were found to be abnormal and he had inflammation of the peripheral nerves. The victim was a publican who liked to drink the first beer drawn from the barrel every day with his customers. Unhappily for him, this had been lying overnight in lead pipes some 20 feet long which connected the barrel with the tap. The beer and drinking water in the pub were found to have a high lead content.9
league as that of the Romans or of some who came after them, including the people who worked in and/or lived near factories during the Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth century. It has even been suggested that lead contributed to the decline of the Roman Empire!
Where did the lead come from and what effects did it have? Lead is a cumulative poison. Like arsenic, it has many targets in the body and some of the symptoms of poisoning are easily confused with the symptoms of other diseases. Chronic, long-term lead exposure will cause effects on the nervous system which may become serious. The victim feels tired and listless, has constipation, is anaemic, and can become infertile. If, as seems likely, it was the upper levels of Roman society that suffered most from lead poisoning, some of these effects could have influenced the running of an empire.
As the Romans ingeniously introduced lead water pipes, it is likely that their water, carried in these pipes, was contaminated with lead as it still is today, especially in areas of soft or acidic water. The use of lead glazes in pottery and, even more importantly, lead cooking pots were other contributory factors. Thus the lead was dissolved from the surface of the lead pots or from the lead-containing glaze on pottery. Analysis of the bones of Romans from the time of their empire has shown high levels of lead, sufficient to cause lead poisoning.
The syndrome caused by lead poisoning was known as Saturnine gout (gout can be one of the symptoms of lead poisoning). It is similar in cause and effects to so-called Devonshire colic in eighteenth-century England and Colic Pictonium in late medieval France. These were due to lead dissolved by acids in cider and wine respectively. An English doctor showed that it was the lead used to line the apple presses that was the cause of the colic. More recently, those making and drinking 'moonshine' whisky during Prohibition may have fallen foul of lead poisoning by using lead pipes and lead-containing solder for the stills. Some of these individuals suffered from chronic kidney damage called nephritis.
Lead was also used in medicines, and in pastes for the treatment of skin diseases 2,000 years ago. In the nineteenth century some doctors recommended lead acetate and opium mixtures for the treatment of diarrhoea. This was described in early versions of the British Pharmacopoeia (Pil. Plumbi cum Opio). Certain lead salts were believed to be powerful astringents which would help in the treatment of wounds and promote healing. Thus Goulard's extract (liquor plumbi subacetatis fortis, or lead acetate) was still recommended in textbooks in the early twentieth century10 in dilute form for the treatment of ulcers, acute inflammatory skin conditions, and eczema and as a gargle in tonsillitis. Lead compounds have also been used to treat inoperable cancer.
Both acute and chronic exposure to lead became more common with the advent of the Industrial Revolution and there were as many as a thousand cases per year of lead poisoning in the UK at the end of the nineteenth century. During the nineteenth century there were also many cases of lead poisoning due to contamination of domestic drinking water in areas such as the north of England where slightly acidic water was delivered to houses in lead pipes. Lead was also used in fungicides in the form of lead arsenate.
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