The problem of lead exposure may be far worse than we had imagined, a new study from Israel suggests.

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A Roman lead water-pipe

Lead in the air

One long-held theory has it that the lead in Roman water-pipes, not the barbarian invasions or the conversion to Christianity (or both), was ultimately responsible for that mighty empire’s downfall. But, whether or not the lead-pipe theory is true, the amounts of lead the average Roman citizen was exposed to are likely to be far less than we are today, as a shocking new study out of Israel claims.

A variety of toxic metals, including lead, are being released during the production, use and disposal of technology such as batteries, smartphones, solar panels and wind turbines may be seeping into our bones and poisoning us.

Figure 1

World lead production over the last 5500 years: lead levels in the skeletons the team examined tracked closely the trends in global lead production seen in this graph, as shown by the graph below

Figure 1

Experts from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem examined 130 skeletons taken from a cemetery in the centre of Rome which has been in use from around 12,000 years age – before the advent of metallurgy – right through to the seventeenth century. 

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By performing scientific analysis of the bones, the researchers discovered that as worldwide lead production increased over time, so did the rates of lead absorption into the bodies of the people buried in the cemetery. This mirrors previous research which showed that rates of lead production are also reflected in environmental “archives” such as glaciers and lake sediments.

Lead can be breathed in from the atmosphere, so the pollution was able to affect people who were in no way involved in production of the metal.

Microplastic pollution may have even worse implications that first thought, as scientists show that these tiny pieces of plastic can transport harmful bacteria such as E.coli up the food chain.

Since this is so, and given that lead production has continued to rise even beyond the cut-off of the study (the seventeenth century), the findings are likely to raise broad questions about lead exposure today.

As the graphs above show, lead production received its first serious boost about 2,500 years ago, with the introduction of coinage, which peaked during the Roman period, before falling off during the Middle Ages.

Another serious rise followed about a thousand years ago as silver mining picked up first in Germany and then in the New World, before climbing steadily as a result of the global Industrial Revolution that has been taking place since the late eighteenth century.

Click here to read about a study which shows that levels of cancer in the Middle Ages were significantly lower than today. Yet another reason to return to tradition?

“This documentation of lead pollution throughout human history indicates that, remarkably, much of the estimated dynamics in lead production is replicated in human exposure,” Professor Yigal Erel, lead researcher, explained to the Daily Mail.


“Thus, lead pollution in humans has closely followed their rates of lead production. Simply put: the more lead we produce, the more people are likely to be absorbing it into their bodies. This has a highly toxic effect. 

“The close relationship between lead production and lead concentrations in humans in the past suggests that without proper regulation we will continue to experience the damaging health impacts of toxic metal contamination.” 

A massive surge in demand for lead and other harmful metal is expected in order to produce the necessary ‘environmentally friendly’ technologies to offset man-made climate change

Those at the greatest risk from lead poisoning remain those with the most exposure to the toxic metal, including miners and workers in recycling facilities. However, as demand for the toxic metal rises, in large part to counter the harmful effects of man-made climate change, exposure may increase across the board.

“In the near future a mounting demand is expected for metals for the manufacturing of new products such as solar panels and wind turbines, and electronic devices. For example, a 300% increase in the demand for lead, nickel, silver, and indium in solar photovoltaics, and 1200% increase in the demand for lead, cobalt, and nickel for energy storage technologies are expected in order to achieve 2 °C rather than 6 °C increase in global world temperature by 2050. In addition, there has been growing concern about the environmental and toxicological impacts of metal mining in a few African and Asian countries, and the need to curb illegal trade and introduce certification processes was repeatedly advocated.

This raises the concern that the current increasing use of several toxic metals (including Pb) in electronic devices and the transition to low-carbon energy production may soon be reflected in elevated concentrations of these metals in humans, predominantly in those that are not fortunate enough to live in regulated and monitored regions. This also strengthens the case that increased use of metals should go hand in hand with augmented industrial hygiene, maximum metal recycling, and the consideration of environmental and toxicological aspects in the selection of metals for industrial use.” 

Once again it would seem that the ‘green’ future we are being promised may not be so kind on us after all, and especially on those who can least afford to protect themselves.