Book Review: Getting the Lead Out

Throughout the history of environmental poisoning by humans, lead has been acknowledged as a major culprit. Its toxic effects were recognized as early as the 2nd century BCE, and more than one scholar has argued that chronic lead poisoning was a significant factor in the fall of the Roman Empire. The ancient Romans were most certainly exposed to lead, as the material was employed for plumbing, cookware glazes, paints, and cosmetics. These, along with other applications, continued through the medieval era. Lead found its way into alcoholic beverages through several routes. In the 18th century it caused Devonshire colic, which plagued the cider drinkers of southwestern England. It also caused gout among British aristocrats, who consumed port wines containing lead acetate: lead depresses kidney function, inhibiting the excretion of the uric acid that causes gout. Even bonbons and sweetmeats were sometimes contaminated with such brightly colored lead compounds as yellow chromate, which was used in an eye-pleasing glaze.

In the early 19th century, industrialization promoted a closer study of the health problems of workers in mines, factories, and other settings. In these first stages of development of occupational medicine, lead dominated discussions of poisoning in the workplace. Miners, smelters, painters, enamelers, glazers, typesetters, and other types of workers were identified as victims of colic, emaciation, anemia, wristdrop, and encephalopathy from exposure to lead. The list of those at risk expanded as industrial chemistry advanced. By the early 20th century the population of the Western world at large was exposed to lead in paints, pesticides, and the gasoline additive tetraethyl lead.

The growth in recent decades of the specialty of environmental history has generated several books that explore the dangers of lead poisoning, also known as plumbism, in the past; but until now, one of the most common sources of lead poisoning in modern times—water supplied to houses through lead pipes—had been largely neglected. Troesken’s volume remedies that neglect.

The disaster of the title began in the mid-1800s in North America and the British Isles with large-scale installation in urban areas of piped-water systems, which replaced collection by hand from rivers and wells. From the beginning lead was the most appealing material for water pipes, which carried water from street mains into the household: it was affordable and was more durable than wood, iron, and tin, the other materials available at the time. Despite the long history of awareness of lead’s toxicity, chemists and physicians supposed that water flowing through the pipes would not dissolve enough lead to present health problems to consumers. The supposition was wrong, of course. Depending on a variety of factors, most notably the hardness or softness of the water, lead could dissolve in concentrations that were dangerous, even deadly. An alarming statistic in the book shows 19th- and early 20th-century concentrations of lead in U.S. and British drinking water were equal to hundreds and sometimes thousands of times the level recognized today as the maximum safe concentration by the Environmental Protection Agency.