Professor Plum – did it in the kitchen – with the lead pipe. This could have been an outcome in the old board game, Clue. In reality and recent times it was the the emergency manager in Flint Michigan, with the lead pipes in the cities antiquated distribution lines.
Back to Flint, Michigan later, but first a brief history and discussion of the toxic nature of lead. Lead is the quintessential example of the class of elements know as heavy metals. Other toxic heavy metals include Mercury and Cadmium. Heavy metals generally share a capacity to cause nerve damage in both peripheral and central nervous systems. The element symbol, Pb, comes from the Latin Plumbum, which is also the root of the English words plumber, and plumb-line.
Lead has been in common use for centuries. Lead glaze in pottery has been dated to circa 4000 BCE in Egypt. It is a dense, relatively non oxidizing (won’t “rust” like iron) malleable material. Among its many uses are jewelry, solder, lead pipes, batteries, and of course the most toxic form-bullets. In various chemical combinations it has been used as durable paint pigment, and an anti-knock agent for gasoline. In ancient Rome a chemical compound of lead was used to sweeten wine. Not surprisingly the compound’s common name is sugar of lead, made by dissolving lead in vinegar to get lead acetate.
Lead came into use about the time of the iron age, but may have preceded iron as it is easier to smelt from its ore, Galena. It’s toxicity has also been known from ancient times. Acute lead poisoning is rare, but chronic poisoning was common. The forerunners of modern chemists were the alchemists. They for reasons know only to them associated some elements with planets. Lead was connected to Saturn. The word saturnine is an adjective meaning slow, gloomy, taciturn, even cynical. These describe nicely the early symptoms of lead poisoning. Further progression of poisoning involves damaged memory, confusion, and tremors. Some of these symptoms can be irreversible.
Chronic lead poisoning is at its most insidious when children are involved. If items with any lead content are in the presence of a toddler, it will likely end up in the child’s mouth. Lead based paint was common, and the toxicity known since early in the 20th century. A painted window sill is the perfect spot for a teething toddler. Regulation of the industry was resisted for decades, the industry blamed the parents for not keeping toys, window sills, etc out of the mouths of children.
The most recent example of lead poisoning in children takes us back to Flint, Michigan. The collapse of the auto industry and other financial troubles lead the state to take over management of the city. An emergency manager with broad authority to manage the city budget caused (or allowed) the city to switch their water supplier from properly treated Lake Huron water to untreated water from the Flint river. This untreated water flowed through the city’s lead pipe distribution system. Proper treatment can prevent leaching, but it wasn’t done. Subsequently as many as 10,000 children have been identified as having toxic levels of lead in their blood. Many could suffer permanent kidney, liver, and brain damage.