The Eternal Hour of Lead

This is the Hour of Lead-
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow-
First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –

When 19th century poet Emily Dickinson wrote those lines, she was describing the terrible paralysis of grief. A good century later, analysts for the Environmental Defense Fund, would also note that the last line “aptly describes some of the symptoms of lead intoxication.”

I’ve always suspected that they also just liked the poem and wanted to use it – certainly that’s partly my motive here. But I’ve also been thinking about one phrase in Dickinson’s verse because it seems to me, recently, that as a human society we seemed perpetually caught – by which I mean poisoned – in an endless” hour of lead.”

The chemical symbol for lead is Pb, from the Latin word “plumbum” which referred to a malleable metal. The term plumbing comes from the use of lead pipes by the Romans; a plumber fixes them, a plumb bob refers to a lead weight, a plumb line is pulled straight by such a weight. An old-fashioned term for lead poisoning is plumbism. We are surrounded by references to what is arguably the most important poison in human history.

Many scholars have argued, for instance, that the plumbum-loving Roman empire – enthusiastically using lead pipes, bottles, and wine cups, leaded cosmetics and paint – came to its end partly due to lead-poisoning of its upper classes. One U.S. Environmental Protection Agency paper on the history of lead poisoning, cites “the conspicuous pattern of mental incompetence that came to be synonymous with the Roman elite” as evidence of lead’s destructive effects.

Interestingly, the EPA paper also cites poetry to illustrate the evils of lead poisoning, a scrap of anonymous verse, attributed to a Roman hermit and translated in 1829:
The feeble offspring curse their crazy sires,
And, tainted from his birth, the youth expires.

The key points there being, of course, crazy sires and dead children. “No safe blood lead level has been identified,” notes a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) backgrounder on exposure risks. Lead is a broad spectrum poison - it interferes with enzyme production, especially enzymes needed by red blood cells, and is known to cause lethal anemias. It targets neurons, disrupting the production of neurotransmitters such as glutamate (which plays a key role in learning by enhancing plasticity). It deposits itself into bones and stays there – the half-life of lead in human bones is up to 30 years. Muscle weakness, numbness and tingling, nausea, severe stomach pain, depression, fatigue, sleeplessness, loss of libido – all are symptoms of lead poisoning and all speak to its ability to impact every part of the body.

Lead banding (deposits) in leg bones

The Romans weren’t the only major civilization from our past to be affected by lead poisoning. Last summer, environmental scientists in Japan reported the results of an investigation into lead exposure in the Edo period, which lasted from 1603 to 1867, a time when the country was dominated by shogun leaders, and laws enforced by an aristocratic class of samurai warriors.

According to Tamiji Nakashima, an anatomist at the University of Occupational and Environmental Health in Kitakyushu, the investigators studied the remains of samurai men, their wives and children, about 70 in total. Earlier tests had found unusually high levels in the women compared to men; the last study looked at the children. The researchers tested for lead in rib bones, x-rayed the childrens’ arm and leg bones looking for signs of lead poisoning.

The Japanese scientists had already concluded that the lead levels in women were directly related to the white face paint popular in aristocratic circles, which turned out to be loaded with lead. They wondered if exposure to the same material might have harmed the children and the new results showed them precisely right; they found evidence of lead levels more than 120 times background level as well as bands of lead deposits in the bones.

Nakashima and his colleagues believe that the children were poisoned by touch, as they were fed, hugged, carried by their mothers, the lead-rich paint rubbed off on them. They also speculate that the gradual lead-poisoning – with its inevitable taint of death and disability – helped put an end to the shogunate reign in the late 19th century, setting up the transfer of power to an emperor.

It has only been in the last century, of course, that we’ve realized just how dangerous lead actually is. That knowledge has resulted from the new ability of scientists to detect it in very tiny amounts and to connect those trace exposures with health problems. In the dawn of lead awareness, governments have banned lead paint and leaded gasoline, moved to replace lead pipes in water systems, squeezed down allowable lead levels in consumer products.

Is this a smart response? Yes, obviously, if we are talking about poison unsafe at all levels. But only if said governments are actively – and honestly – trying to enforcement protective standards. For instance, as reported last year by The Washington Post, when inspections discovered massive lead contamination from pipes in Washington D.C. in 2004, the Bush administration not only issued misleading reassurances but moved to loosen protective measures designed to protect against lead poisoning.

Or consider the discovery of lead in popular lipstick brands sold in the United States. Although some of these products showed clear lead contamination in amounts above EPA safety levels – and although women inevitably swallow some lipstick – the U.S. Food and Drug Administration insists that the lipsticks are perfectly safe.  But as I noted in a recent post for the Knight Science Journalism Tracker, there remains considerable consumer doubt and fear about such findings.

Our leaded history continues to haunt us in this country. Lead-based paint remains in hundreds of residential buildings around the country, especially in poor neighborhoods, and our government seems newly reluctant to fund programs that remove such hazards. And it’s not just a paint-in-the living room problem. As USA Today reported this week, the government has been slow to alert city residents of lead-contaminated soils surrounding their homes, linked to long closed factories.

And to raise a non-urban example, considered the still unresolved petition filed with the EPA last year, trying to force the agency to regulate the use of lead shot in hunting, which advocates say is now killing more than 10 million birds and animals every year, mostly due to consumption of spent lead pellets. contaminated by lead.

“It’s long past time do something about this deadly – and preventable – epidemic of lead poisoning in the wild,” said Jeff Miller, conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity. The government does ban the use of lead pellets in shooting waterfowl but conservationists say this barely touches the problem. Still, the EPA has been notably reluctant to take an this issue angrily opposed by hunting groups, who are already describing the petition as an attack on traditional hunting values.

This is not to suggest that lead problems – or even the worst lead problems – are concentrated in the United States. In 2010, more than 1,300 children were sickened in China by lead exposure from nearby smelting plants, leading to furious protests from their parents against government cover-ups. Not to mention, lead poisoning related to gold-extraction in Nigera, where  where health experts say more than 400 children have died and thousands more been sickened – as a result of lead exposure related to handling of contaminated ores.

The feet, mechanical, go round
A wooden way
Of ground, or air, or ought
, Dickenson wrote in The Hour of Lead and she was writing, of course, of the clock-work motions of those caught in grief. But it strikes me that the mechanical analogy applies here too because we keep repeating these same actions that bring us into harm, as if we cannot seem to fully learn – or fully respect – what our own history should have taught us here.

We remain, thus, in our eternal hour of lead, still not fully awakened from that our lead-induced stupor, apparently, and still unable to let go.

(This is an update of one of my favorite posts, partly because lead is such an important poison, and partly because I managed to weave the poet Emily Dickinson’s wonderful poem into it!)

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18 Responses to The Eternal Hour of Lead

  1. Kip Hansen says:

    The author has failed to fact check her material…the “Lead pipes cause Fall of Roman Empire” myth was debunked back in 2006 by an examination of the bones of Romans for lead. The result: ‘Skeletal lead content increased significantly in the Roman era, but peaked at a level only 41-47% of that of modern Europeans.’
    The abstract of the study is:
    Lead Poisoning in Ancient Rome
    By Francois Retief and Louise P. Cilliers
    Acta Theologica, Vol.26:2 (2006)
    available at:
    http://historyoftheancientworld.com/2010/08/lead-poisoning-in-ancient-rome/

  2. David W says:

    The author also writes: “They also speculate that the gradual lead-poisoning – with its inevitable taint of death and disability – helped put an end to the shogunate reign in the late 19th century, setting up the transfer of power to an emperor.”
    The ritualistic “They speculate” clause is once again offered to prop up an alarmist’s agenda.
    The idea that lead face paint contributed to the downfall of the Tokugawa Shogunate in nineteenth century Japan seems to be yet another case of an alarmist confusing correlation for causation. The greatest contribution the substance may have provided to the dawn of the Meiji restoration would have come from Admiral Perry’s cannons, not the long-term consequences of poor cosmetic selection. Had the author not conducted such sloppy research, she might have discovered that the elite and their progeny in Shogunate Japan were not all exterminated, they were repurposed. The samurai (as well as the rest of the nation’s elites) were disenfranchised as a class, and were assigned the prodigious task of bringing Japan into the modern era. Had the cumulative effects of lead poisoning so debilitated the elites in the nation of Japan that their entire political and class structure collapsed, those same elites could have never led Japan to become an economic and military power within only 40 years.
    Such sloppy research, broadcast and abetted by alarmist journalism, doesn’t alleviate any suffering. Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring has been pointedly discredited as academically weak and insufficiently supported by rigorous scientific processes, but that hasn’t stopped generations of willfully gullible college sophomores to consume its lessons and regurgitate its political claptrap. It may have raised our consciousness regarding the overuse of pesticides, which was a good thing. It has also led to the banning of DDT, which has contributed to the deaths of millions of people.
    Do I feed my children grapeshot with their morning Grape Nuts? Of course not. I just think that alarmism has no place in the public debate. Sweeping generalizations and cherry picked assertions based on anecdotes and speculation, combined with the willful ignorance of exculpatory evidence should never be relied on as elements of lasting, beneficial change.

  3. jerry l born, PhD says:

    With respect to Pb poisoning in Rome it is of importance that the Romans in Constantinople lived much like the Romans in Rome and they lasted another 1000 years. Pb poisoning, I think not.

  4. Some of the few data points for lead in skeletons from Rome is summarized here (along with some of the British data over time) – http://www.pasthorizonspr.com/index.php/archives/02/2012/lead-poisoning-in-rome-the-skeletal-evidence.

  5. N says:

    I find it even more interesting that USA Today ran an article April 20th for their weekend addition. The hysteria over lead, and that is the only way to refer to it, timing is suspicious.

    If there are problems elsewhere in the world, it is an issue for their sovereign governments to address. We, of course, should be concerned about our fellow humans being exposed to such poisons and inform them of the risks.

    The other thing is while lead is a poison, it is also very stable. Ships that sunk and used lead as ballast thousands of years ago still have that lead there. People that handle lead in its solid forms take only the most rudimentary forms of protection. The handling of things like solvents and other chemicals have far more significant protective equipment.

    It is when lead is vaporized or dissolved in solutions that it becomes a problem. In the USA lead in those forms have been controlled for decades…DECADES.

    If lead was as dangerous as Ms. Blum proposes, our Civil War battlefields would be hazardous waste zones complete with security fences and such. Every military gunnery range would have a “Love Canal” recovery project in place. The pioneers and explorers that settle the West routinely ate game killed by shot and and bullets made of lead, yet showed no effects. Gang bangers wounded by bullets never die from the leftover lead in their bodies.

    As Ms. Blum comments that this is an updated article. I encourage readers to read the replies in that article too. They are much like the ones here.

    Still it is interesting to note that so far no one has yet to take issue with her comments on Emily Dickinson…

  6. N says:

    I just spent a little more time with this article. Again the author glosses over that the real culprit with lead contamination are the aerosolized forms of lead.

    The lead ban for ammunition debate has been around for quite some time. The estimates of 10 million of dead animals annually defies logic.

    Just do the math:
    Year 1 – 10 million dead animals
    Year 2 – 10 million newly dead animals + the remains of the previous year (20MM)
    Year 3 – 10MM newly dead animals + the previous 2 years (30MM)
    Year N – 10MM newly dead animals + (N+1)*MM from previous years.

    The numbers would be staggering and you could not go out into the wild without stepping onto a animal dead or dying from lead poisoning. Even if you consider or allow scavengers cleaning up the carcasses, and a percentage of these dying from the lead poisoned meat the numbers quoted by these “experts” defy observation, logic, or science.

    Less some person a little more wiser chimes in that steel shot is being used by hunters in place of lead (lead is allowed in non-waterfowl applications), you must remember the experts are saying 10MM (million) animals are dying in the present conditions. Also some of the lead bans in hunting in California are allegedly to be repealed soon.

    Ms. Blum also withholds why the EPA has not regulated the use of lead in bullets and shot. The EPA was going to ban lead in bullets and shot, even thought about ignoring enacted federal law specifically enjoining them from doing so. Once threatened with rare Congressional action, a threatened appeal to the Supreme Court where the EPA would lose, the Obama administration backed down.

    Since the article uses a graphic of fishing weights (without citing whose graphic that is), implying they are a major source of waterborne lead contamination does not cite where this might be occuring. From fishing nets to the weekend angler lead weights and lost lead weights have been around for centuries. Surely some inlet or bay without any evidence of previous industrial or mining pollution would show proof of lead weight pollution?

    This article and some of the others in the press show that we may be on the cusp of “boogey man” science. That is to make something that will require punative controls, huge taxpayer assistance for research and control, and money for lobbyists and lawyers for something that is literally not a problem in the USA. Lead being used today is strictly and safely controlled and I have yet to see any new contaminations in the USA.

    Doubt that statement? Go read the Vanguard article and you will find that the lead problem the children are facing come from the fact that the ore the miners are processing is crushed in their homes (aerosolized lead). In China it is lead smelting (aerosolized lead).

    All we need do is export our OSHA and EPA manuals to these countries and they could eliminate their problem with lead too. It just is not that difficult to control this element.

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  8. Lab Lemming says:

    The hour of lead is not endless; it lasts 4468 million years.
    Lead is the basis of the most widely used geochronometers. It times the key events of our solar system, from the condensation of the first ash of dying supernovae to the onset of the ice ages 3 million years ago.

  9. mike says:

    One might think from the comments that those wanting to prevent lead poisoning are against America, motherhood and apple pie.

    It seems to me that hysteria can be leveled at commenter. One might almost think they worked for the lead industry what with all their caterwauling.

  10. JimmyDean Breakfastsausage says:

    Go onto many firearms or hunting sites and you will find many “good ol boys” who feel that using bismuth or steel shot is equivalent to allowing the “gubberment” to cut off their man oysters. That’s aside from the number of shooters who simply won’t bother to get a new shotgun that can take steel shot.

    While these fine gentlemen commenters suggest 10 million animals is silly, they seem to be unable to come up with any actual numbers themselves. Of course not. They are just guessing. While various government agencies actually did real studies, including measuring lead levels in migratory birds and found they were dying by the hundreds in just tiny areas from… (can you guess?) LEAD POISONING. Hunters shooting LEAD shot at migratory birds. (Even though its banned) The shot sits on the bottom of wetlands. The birds eat the shot while feeding, and or as gizzard stones.

    Yes, The Lead Is Stable. UNTIL ANIMALS EAT IT. Then the acid in their stomach, and the stones the birds eat grinds it small and dumps it into their system in massive amounts. Then THEY DIE. Then scavengers eat THOSE animals. Then THEY DIE. Then scavengers eat THOSE animals. Then THEY DIE. Do you notice anything repeating here? You wouldn’t notice knee deep dead animals because of something called decomposition and scavenging. You see, there are these things called bacteria and flies and beetles. They eat rotting corpses. Otherwise, we really would be knee deep in corpses of all kinds. Duh.

    Hey guys, if you think lead is so safe, why don’t you give your kids some lead weights to play with and suck on. Maybe swallow. See if it effects them.

  11. JimmyDean Breakfastsausage says:

    Go onto many firearms or hunting sites and you will find many “good ol boys” who feel that using bismuth or steel shot is equivalent to allowing the “gubberment” to cut off their man oysters. That’s aside from the number of shooters who simply won’t bother to get a new shotgun that can take steel shot.

    While these fine gentlemen commenters suggest 10 million animals is silly, they seem to be unable to come up with any actual numbers themselves. Of course not. They are just guessing. While various government agencies actually did real studies, including measuring lead levels in migratory birds and found they were dying by the hundreds in just tiny areas from… (can you guess?) LEAD POISONING. Hunters shooting LEAD shot at migratory birds. (Even though its banned) The shot sits on the bottom of wetlands. The birds eat the shot while feeding, and or as gizzard stones.

    Yes, The Lead Is Stable. UNTIL ANIMALS EAT IT. Then the acid in their stomach, and the stones the birds eat grinds it small and dumps it into their system in massive amounts. Then THEY DIE. Then scavengers eat THOSE animals. Then THEY DIE. Then scavengers eat THOSE animals. Then THEY DIE. Do you notice anything repeating here? You wouldn’t notice knee deep dead animals because of something called decomposition and scavenging. You see, there are these things called bacteria and flies and beetles. They eat rotting corpses. Otherwise, we really would be knee deep in corpses of all kinds. Duh.

  12. Kip, what the author said was “Many scholars have argued…” that lead pipes were implicated in the Roman Empire unravelling, a fact that remains true. Scholars have argued this, like it or not. Fact checked :)

  13. N says:

    Mr. Breakfastsausage, Mr. Mike,
    I stick with my comments about “boogeyman science”. PLOS and other publications seem ripe with this kind of journalism. This type of journalism is hardly unique and students of history would certainly notice the parallels to the yellow journalism from the past century.

    Besides publications obscuring the source for articles, unless one is careful, one might assume the problems with lead were a US domestic concern. If readers take the time to dig through the information and trace them back to their source material, that search reveals that current and new problems with lead are almost exclusively the province of foreign countries. For a variety of reasons not limited to poverty, corruption, and ineptness, their environmental regulations have varying degrees of effectiveness, or rather ineffectiveness. This is not unlike where the US was when lead regulations were put in place near the middle of the last century.

    Likewise, Mr. Breakfastsausage twists and contorts comments attached to the article. 10 million animals dying of lead poisoning is not silly. Animals dying from any type of poisoning are not silly.

    Revisiting what was contorted and expanding on the comments, what is silly, or likely ridiculous, is the 10 million per year dying animals number itself. To arrive at that number some analyst took the data they had, and extrapolated it to cover the entire United States. In order to know how correct these assumptions are, one would have to know how the data were collected and analyzed. For example, were all the dead animals analyzed for the cause of death? What was the error rate for these types of tests conducted? Are the tests definitive in determining the cause of death or lead levels? How expansive an area was sampled? How large a sample was collected? Over what durations were the samples collected? What commercial entity performed the actual tests for the federal agencies? Did the animals access lead from sources other than bullet or shot?

    My comments expressing my suspicions of the high lead death toll on wild animals are based on the way these animals migrate, the way organic matter decomposes, the properties of firearm projectiles, and variances and veracities of government studies.

    My experience with most journalists is that they seem to understand little about projectile properties. Bullets, by and large, that miss their target bury themselves in some other object. So the chance of some animal swallowing a lead bullet is very remote simply because the bullet is irretrievably buried.

    Lead shot, on the other hand, spills over a larger area. As Mr. Breakfastsausage correctly identifies, birds are the animals principally affected due to their feeding nature. One still needs to realize that birds are flock animals and do not travel in solitude. They flock together on the fields and marshes along the flyways of this nation. Additionally, both erosion and sedimentation play roles in the birds being able to access enough lead to be of concern. Waterfowl are now shot with steel shot, so sedimentation quickly denies these birds access to lead shot.

    Again if one would be searching for corroboration for these studies and assuming the source of such lead poisonings were lead shot, the fact that these fowl are flock creatures would concentrate where the carcasses would be found. While, no doubt, sick birds might die in route while migrating, large numbers would be found on the fields and marshes of this country where they stop.

    Again if, as Mr. Breakfastsausage proposes, the lead levels in dead animals were extremely toxic their carcasses should be found in the vicinity of these fields and marshes. Further, scavengers like buzzards, etc. carcasses should also be found too.

    While bugs might consume the organics on the skeletons of these dead animals, once the organics are gone, the skeletons would remain. Even bird skeletons will survive for several years in the wild. With a death toll of 10 million per annum, finding bird skeletons and the evidence of lead poisoning should be common.

    Using such exaggerated numbers to affect and enact policy is hardly unique. Many years ago (20+ I think) parents were scared at the news reports of the number of children disappearing every day. National policymakers started to focus in on the problem. However, when the public started to really analyze the numbers and change the disappearance rate from daily to per annum you realized that in just 2 or 3 years you would have cleaned out all the children in a major American city.

    Soon a more careful analysis of the data revealed that the number of stranger abductions was both quite small and tragic, but small nonetheless. Most children disappeared in custody battles or were runaways. If you check the missing children reports posted at stores, post offices, etc. you will see that the phrase “stranger abduction” is fairly rare.

    However, lead as environmental threat is real. But unless lead is aerosolized or made mobile (by acids and such) if just isn’t much of threat. Not only that studies have shown that even eating meat taken by bullets or shot has not resulted in anything the CDC would call an elevated lead level. An elevated level does not require medical treatment or monitoring so that shows just how low the lead levels are.

    Writing new regulations to treat lead like it was plutonium, has no basis in science. People who want lead treated as such, more than likely have an agenda they have yet to reveal.

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