Cases of Lead Poisoning Throughout History


Lead is a very common metal that has been used all throughout history in various applications. However it has been found to be deadly even in the smallest amounts. Our ancestors may have believed that lead was a great tool in the early days, but it had the ability to ravage their bodies and minds without them even knowing it.

Use in Ancient Rome

A study performed in 1983 by scientist Jerome Nriagu looked at the diets of 30 Roman emperors from 30 BC to AD220. He was able to make a fascinating discovery. The emperor’s bodies were filled with lead. During their time, it was very common to boil grapes into a syrup form and use as flavoring for food. This was done inside of copper kettles that released a large amount of lead into the food they ate.

Since we know that Roman emperors were gluttonous in their dining habits, they could have ended up with chronic lead poisoning which may have contributed to the fall of the Roman Empire. Even though Nriagu’s findings have been debated over the years, there are various studies that have backed up his claims. The pipes of the Tiber River which were the primary source of water for Rome contained 100 times the amount of lead as fresh spring water.

Lead Was the First Artificial Sweetener

Artificial sweeteners have been around for centuries long before Sweet n Low. Any time that sugar could not be readily found, lead acetate was used because it had a naturally sweet taste. In Roman times the chemical was referred to as Sapa and often added to wine.

In 1047, Pope Clement II died suddenly from an unknown cause. And an examination performed in 1959 showed that he died from chronic lead poisoning, most likely from the use of lead acetate in wine. Pope Clement II was German and at that time the Germans had a custom of sweetening their wine using lead.

Used to Make Toxic Alcohol

During the 18th century, the Royal Naval fleet gave out run rations to sailors. The Antiguan rum made in distilleries at that time could have contained high levels of lead. A study that was conducted examined the bodies of 17 males who were buried in the Royal Navy Hospital Cemetery. It was discovered that their bones were tainted with lead. The normal amount of lead in bones is 5 to 30 parts per million. In the bones of these remains, the amount ranged from 13 to 336 ppm, proving that they were poisoned by lead.

If this theory is true, then it could mean that other members of the Royal Navy who served in the West Indies could have consumed tainted run as well.

Lead paint used by Artists

In 1713, an Italian physician named Bernardino Ramazzini wrote in his book the De Morbis Artificum Diatriba that he knew of several artists and painters who had similar health conditions. Their symptoms included chronic sickness, a pale complexion and melancholy. He was one of the first people to use the term “Painter’s Colic” and that their health issues were a result of the lead paint that they used.

Ingestion of lead was known as saturnism and the condition affected many artists throughout history. It is believed that artists affected by lead paint poisoning included Michelangelo Buonarroti, Francisco Goya, Candido Portinari and perhaps even Vincent van Gogh.

The Introduction of Pewter

During the first years of colonization in America, the English used dishes, cups and other cookware that was made out of pewter. This meant that these items were also coated in a deadly layer of lead. Pewter was also widely used in musket balls too. So any time someone used a musket, which was quite often during colonial times, they would have been exposed.

Wealthy Americans in the 1600s also used mainly pewter dishes in their homes. They used this material so much that researchers are able to tell the wealthy from the poor by examining their remains and the amount of lead in their bones. Colonel Joseph Bridger was one of the wealthiest individuals in Virgina during the 17th century. When his body was exhumed for research and tested by medical professionals in 2007, the amount of lead that was present in his bones was measured to be at 149 ppm. This means that he would have had at least seven times the average amount of lead in his body than the typical human being from that time period.