The 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. This 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 this spring 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 last year’s 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 declared that the lipsticks were perfectly safe.  And, in fact, they may pose no serious risk. But the FDA has also refused to release the full details of its study and the result has been an exasperated consumer movement, The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.

Finally, just today a coalition of five environmental groups filed a petition with the EPA, 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. Last year, 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.

This year, the real lead horror story has come from Nigeria, where health experts now believe that some 18,000 people have been poisoned – and more than 200 children have died – as a result of lead exposure related to gold mining. The Chinese smelters were working with manganese ore, the Nigerians were not seeking to find lead, but many ores, as we know to our cost, are far from pure.

The eternal hour of lead, as I see it, is created by our decisions – we began by using lead before we understood its risks (or really had full ability to to do) and we’ve kept it close at hand ever since – accidentally, carelessly, stubbornly. But to  misquote Emily Dickson, perhaps we’ve not yet finished our lead stupor, perhaps eventually we’ll reach the point where we can let it go.

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21 Responses to The Hour of Lead

  1. Barry Rueger says:

    The Canadian government just approved the sale of lead as a “Homeopathic remedy”! http://www.skepticnorth.com/2010/09/health-canada-approves%E2%80%A6-for-september-22nd/

  2. nyscof says:

    It’s hard to understand why our government allows lead to be purposely injected into water supplies via water fluoridation chemicals when the EPA’s maximum contaminant level goal of lead is zero and the CDC says no safe level of lead has been identified.

    NSF International is the private company that regulates water additivies. This is it’s fluoride fact sheet and shows that they found lead and arsenic in the meager 245 samples they took over 6 years.

    http://www.nsf.org/business/water_distribution/pdf/NSF_Fact_Sheet.pdf

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  4. Julie says:

    Makes me wonder how many other chemicals fit this same category. We use them and don’t know/don’t have the capability to understand the risks. I bet its more common than we realize.

  5. palefire says:

    Lead is a serious issue, something everyone should be extremely antagonized about. The effects on children are very bad. On the other hand, in the 70′s we all were exposed to a lot of lead. And here we are. So I guess that argument is we have survived so far. But the poisonous effect on childhood development and cognition, on behavior, is serious and alarming. Thank you for this article!

  6. Steve Silberman says:

    Awesome, thought-provoking, beautiful compiled post. Thank you!

  7. Julie says:

    I’m specifically worried about the termite tenting chemicals. Does anyone know the long-term effects of tenting for termites? I hope its not the asbestos of the 21st century.

  8. Gaythia says:

    The link cited by nyscof states under lead: “98% of all samples tested had no detectable levels of lead. The average concentration of lead has been 0.005 ppb with 0.6 ppb being the highest concentration detected.”

    It needs to be remembered that the samples they tested (listed by them as Fluorosilicic Acid (aka Fluosilicic Acid or Hydrofluosilicic Acid). 2. Sodium Fluorosilicate (aka Sodium Silicofluoride). or
    3. Sodium Fluoride.)

    end up in drinking water at a fluoride concentration of just 1.2 mg/L fluoride ion in water. This makes the lead concentrations in drinking water from this source negligibly low.

    In analytical chemistry there really isn’t an absolute measure of “zero” concentration. There is only “not detectable” which really means just that the methods used weren’t good enough to find any.

    If you wish to worry about lead in drinking water, it makes sense to be concerned about lead in pipes and faucets.

    Old faucets may have quite high lead content, “lead free” faucets must be less than .5%. For example, this American Standard website:
    http://www.americanstandard-us.com/Microsite/LeadFree/ (2009) advertises that their faucets contain less than .25% lead. Hot water heaters can also be a problem.

    Run the cold water for a bit before filling a drinking glass, especially if the faucet has been sitting unused for a while. And remember, you are not planning to eat the faucet, or pipe, you are only concerned that the lead in the faucet not dissolve into your drinking water supply. Many municipal water districts add minerals to the water to make the water less likely to dissolve lead and other metals while in the pipes in transit to homes.

    The Washington DC water department has this informative fact sheet:
    http://www.dcwasa.com/lead/reduce_lead_tips.pdf

  9. Gaythia says:

    Addition to my post above:

    http://www.nsf.org/consumer/faucets/index.asp?program=Faucets
    “effective August 6, 1998, all faucets and plumbing fixtures sold in the U.S. could not contain more than 8% lead. In addition, for faucets and other devices designed to dispense drinking water, federal law requires that these products to meet the lead leaching requirements of NSF/ANSI Standard 61 – Drinking Water System Components.”
    “In 2010, laws will become effective in California and Vermont which mandate a maximum weighted average lead content requirement of ≤ 0.25 percent. The new lead requirements apply not just to faucets, but also to valves, fittings, and other products intended for contact with drinking water. “

  10. Gaythia says:

    It might also be useful to point out that NSF International was founded as the National Sanitation Foundation as part of the University of Michigan School of Public Health, and is not related to NSF, the National Science Foundation. NSF International is now an independent, not for profit organization.

  11. Gaythia says:

    This is an excellent review of the history and science of lead poisoning. My original comment here was directed at nyscof and seems to have been hung up in moderation. Editing what I wrote for brevity and clairity would be fine with me. It is Deborah Blum who is the excellent science journalist not myself.
    But in my opinion the comment above by nyscof should not remain unchallenged. nyscof links to the website: New York State Coalition Opposed to Floridation. In my opinion, nyscof in the comment above is creating a mistaken impression that the amount of lead as a contaminant in the fluoride compounds added to drinking water is a potential problem. This involves a dilution of a dilution, starting with an already very minute amount. It is insignificant relative to other potential sources of lead in drinking water, notably dissolution of lead from pipes and faucets.

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  13. Thalia says:

    I remember reading an article… I wish I could find it again… that graphed violent crime in the US against reduction of lead in gasoline and paint. Chronic exposure to lead causes irritability and lack of impulse control. Combined with the economic result of unsuitablity for employment, people with lead poisoning were shooting, stabbing and raping each other as well as innocent victims. After the dystopian 1970′s, as environmental lead decreased, overall violence decreased. And now US citites are livable again.

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