Lead in Ancient Rome’s Water Was 100 Times Natural Levels

By Gemma Tarlach | April 21, 2014 2:02 pm
Pont du Gard, an ancient Roman aqueduct in France.

Pont du Gard, an ancient Roman aqueduct in France. Image by Leonid Andronov / Shutterstock.

Everything from northern barbarians to the spread of Christianity has been blamed for the collapse of ancient Rome. But researchers have new evidence for another contributor: There was something in the water.

A study has found that “tap” water in ancient Rome — supplied to the city via lead pipes called fistulae — contained 100 times more lead than water drawn directly from local springs. That amount of lead in the water may have been a “major public health issue,” according to the new study.

Sampling Soil

Researchers began by taking sediment samples from areas in and around the Tiber River, which has had an important role in Rome’s history — the city was founded on its banks more than 2,700 years ag0. Sediment was also sampled from adjacent canals and the man-made Trajanic Harbor, part of Rome’s largest seaport and located near the Tiber’s mouth.

The team chose the locations because the sediment chronology there could be measured through geochemical analysis and compared against historical references to human activity in those exact areas. This allowed the researchers to date the sediment deposited during several key periods, including preharbor (“unpolluted” water), Early and Late Roman empire (water that would have been outflow from Rome’s extensive fistulae network) and Early, High and Late Middle Ages (water that would have gradually reverted to preharbor conditions as Rome’s population and infrastructure declined).

Lead Contamination

The researchers found that water in the city during the height of the Roman Empire was dramatically elevated in lead levels. By analyzing the specific composition of the lead isotopes present, researchers were able to determine that the lead came from mines outside Italy — specifically from areas in southwestern Spain, France, England and Germany, where mines that supplied the raw materials for Rome’s fistulae were known to have existed. The analysis supports the idea that the lead found in the water came from the supply pipes, rather than another source of contamination. The study was published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

While the research is new, the theory that lead poisoning was a factor in Rome’s decline is not. Researchers first proposed the idea decades ago, which sparked a contentious debate. Geochemist Clair Patterson, profiled Sunday on the latest episode of Cosmos, was among the researchers who argued that environmental exposure to lead in ancient Rome and other early civilizations played a role in their downfalls. The theory contributed to a successful campaign to have lead removed from gasoline in the U.S.

Despite the significantly elevated levels of lead in Rome’s waters during the empire’s height, researchers noted that their work does not examine what, if any, health problems were caused.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, top posts
MORE ABOUT: archaeology, pollution
  • Glenn McDavid

    When people talk about the “Fall of the Roman Empire” they usually mean the fall of the Western Roman Empire, This is placed at 476 AD or some other date in that century, depending on the historian, However, the Eastern Roman, or Byzantine, Empire lasted until 1453. So any proposed explanation of the fall of the Western Empire must also account for the survival of the East. Lead was used throughout the Empire, East and West, So if Lead brought down the Western Empire, why did the East survive?

    • Bob Blaskiewicz

      Well put, Glenn.

    • ohwilleke

      Certainly, there were many differences between the Western Empire and Eastern Empire.

      At least one of them likely does relate to lead as the Eastern Empire was home to populous cities with substantial construction having already been in place in the Bronze Age or earlier, while the Western Empire’s urban infrastructure was overwhelmingly of iron age Roman construction.

      Another huge difference, however, was that the Western Empire had a much lower population density than the Eastern Empire. A factor like lead poisoning impacts might be enough to push the Western Empire over the edge since its thinly populated territory was already harder to hold together, while the Eastern Empire, even impaired, was never close to this kind of tipping point.

      Third, while the Byzantine Empire lasted until 1453, this really overstates its endurance. All of the Byzantine Empire in the Levant and North Africa fell to the first four Caliphs of the Islamic Empire after the death of Muhammed from 632-661 CE. This cost the Byzantines probably half or more of its population (and more than half of its wealth as this was the most affluent part of the whole pre-476 CE Roman Empire), and a very large share of its remaining geographic territory as well. This left the Byzantines with most of Anatolia, Greece, and some territory in the Balkans, some of which it held much longer. It received a reprieve of less than two centuries.

      • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Artur Sixto

        I am not knowledgeable in this but, I wonder what does it matter if the Eastern cities developed in the Bronze Age while the Western cities did in the Iron one (which I am surprised to read, as I would think there were no real cities in Iron Age Europe). Even if the cities were already there, when lead pipes appeared, they could be fitted the same. One last thing: we’ve used lead pipes for centuries in Europe. Some medieval castles (like Olite, of the Navarrese kings) already had them. Lead pipes were only removed in recent times, a few decades ago.

        • Odin Matanguihan

          Most historians agree that there is no single cause, but rather a combination of factors.

      • Michelle Yelen

        Thank you. I know these things, but I would have had to pull out the old college text to make sure I was correct! I’m grateful that your memory is sharper than mine ;)

      • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Eric Lipps

        Rome had bigger problems than lead. Repeated, devastating outbreaks of bubonic plague over several centuries killed uncounted millions and were particularly devastating to the Roman legions. It’s hard to believe that didn’t play a bigger role than lead water conduits.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Michael Keener

      they banned homosexual marriage and incest…..

    • RubenCLeon

      Rome didn’t fall. The elites simply directed their best and brightest into the church to become bishops and popes.

  • disqus_atlq8Zmtsd

    While this is new research, I don’t believe it reaches a new conclusion. It is well established that much of the empire used water with levels of lead that were well above the natural background.

    At the same time, I am pretty sure that there is a scientific consensus that the levels reported (I don’t think these ‘new’ numbers are significantly different from the generally accepted values)would have no significant health impact from consumption.

    Perfectly valid research, but I don’t believe the results bring anything significant to the table regarding the lead poisoning theory.

  • WillyWonka248

    This is interesting because America is undergoing a similar crisis. American citizens are being fattened up by high cholesterol food, that contains toxic sugars and fructose, and high salt, along with carcinogens. There was lead in the gasoline that was removed in the 1970′s, but not before thousands of people world wide became lead poisoned.

  • Odin Matanguihan

    I’ve read another article that says the hills around rome had high carbonate content. That means that carbonate residues build up on the aqueducts instead of corroding the pipes and dissolving the lead.

  • Michelle Yelen

    I’ve never heard this before. It was said that the extremely high levels of lead would have caused poisoning and could have changed the mental status of the citizens which could have let to violence…..it would be interesting to know.

  • http://www.octane.uk.net/ Wayne Smallman

    I understand that the Romans also used lead oxide as a sweetener.

    • Glenn Murray

      Lead acetate – aka sugar of lead. Lead oxide has little flavor and is insoluble.

  • 18235

    and ancient Egyptians had bad teeth thanks to all the sand in their grain.

  • lesizz

    I found this in the Wikipedia page “Lead Toxcicity”:

    “Lead poisoning symptoms: 1.Headaches, irritability, fatigue, difficulty
    sleeping, difficulty learning or concentrating, aggressive behaviour 2.
    Stomach pain, constipation, vomiting, nausea, weight loss 3. Hearing
    loss 4. Anemia, unusual paleness, slowed growth, seizures, coma,
    staggering walk 5. Kidney damage, loss of appetite 6. Reduced sensations
    7. Muscle weakness”

    I could see that as a contributor to civilization destruction.

  • Alan

    Use of lead (the plumb in plumbing) has been extensive in the cities of Western and Eastern Europe for a very long time. I think everyone agrees on that. With higher levels of lead poisoning proportionate to population density, I’m wondering if there was any evolutionary impact, with those more resistant to lead toxicity having higher contribution to future generations. For instance, the black plague lasted for a very short time, yet had a profound impact on our genetic resistance to such infections.

  • johndouglasdahl@gmail.com

    i’m pretty sure i was taught this in 6th or ? grade probably 60years ago. old news. OLD

  • http://batman-news.com Sourlander

    One point that has been made before: Many lead pipes are still in service, at least in parts of Germany. A passivated inner surface of a lead pipe doesn’t show a quantifiable lead migration. In a 100 year old house we sampled water which had spent a one week’s stagnation period in the lead piping system and had a negative on lead by means of AAS (Atomic Absorption Spectroscopy).
    Furthermore, lead poisoning in the Western Roman Empire was much more likely to originate from food uptake customs. Typical middle class dishes were made from lead, so with every meal the cutlery scratched the lead surface and mixed the lead with the food. As opposed to passivation of lead pipes, this mechanism occured permanently.
    The upper crust as well as lower class citizens and slaves were exempt from this lead poisoning because gold plates were used in the first place and wooden “crockery” in the 2nd and 3rd.

  • goldengryphon

    In 1969 at a presentation before the California transportation committee, relating to the removal of lead from gasoline, part of my testimony was that problems with the Roman population regarding lead poisoning occurred due to their common use of lead linings in food storage containers. This provided lead oxide exposure. Perhaps a more toxic form of lead than that found in water. Our Bill to remove lead from gasoline was passed by the State Legislature but was lost in the State Senate by only 3 votes so it was not passed. At the time there was little scientific literature to provide proof of lead interaction and death. One incident that we used in our argument was the death of horses from lead poisoning from grazing in fields down wind from a lead processing factory. Another bit of scientific data available to us was a graph of the rapidly rising lead content noted in ice cores from Greenland. About 6 months later the question of the removal of lead from gasoline was taken up by the new founded federal agency, signed into law by Richard Nixon, the “EPA”.
    Neil F. Marshall

  • Ray

    It wasn’t just Lead that reduced fertility. Much of it was intentional as widespread Abortion and Infanticide was used by the Landed Class to concentrate larger and larger tracts of land into a more limited number of families, this coupled with increased use of slaves to work that land unbalanced society as entire lineages died out.

    The Greeks depopulated in the same manner and we are replicating the process.

  • Jarrod

    All I can say is that history repeats itself and that life is holographic and fractal through time. In many ways there is nothing new under the sun. And if the Roman elite did in fact possess knowledge that the drinking water was poisonous and perhaps caused a docile, apathetic populous, they surely would have tried to exploit and leverage such a fact for their own advantage. Fast forward to the modern American empire then, and see that toxins in not only the water, but a host of products and foods may be an example of history repeating itself, as humanity moves further down the fractal spiral through time.

  • http://www.martinjost.eu Martin Jost

    From your summary of the new study I learned that the scientists differentiated between lead isotopes that were indigenous to the region—and could have originated from spring water—and such lead isotopes that came from central Europe. The studie’s authors assumed that these latter isotopes must have entered the water via corrosion from the lead pipes. But they took their sediment samples from the Tiber river and from Rome’s harbour. Did they take into account at all that this foreign lead could have stemmed from Roman ships?

    Romen ships’ hulls were sheathed with lead all over that was scrubbed regularly to prevent rot when in harbour. Also, ships’ crews made use of (and disposed of) much more lead utensils than the general population. The relevant study here is:

    • Rosen, Baruch & Ehud Galili: »Lead Use on Roman Ships and its environmental Effects«. The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology 2007(2). pp. 300–307.

    Odin & Sourlander here in the commentaries pointed out that the Roman pipes’ lead probably didn’t readily corrode into the water, not least because of heavy calcium carbonate incrustrations. Add to that that the water was never stagnant but always running and thus never was in contact with the pipes for more than a couple of minutes. Cf.:

    • Hodge, Trevor, A.: »Vitruvius, Lead Pipes and Lead Poisoning«. American Journal of Archaeology 1981(4). pp. 486–491.

    The likelihood of the Romans’ lead poisoning by lead(II)-acetate is an entirely different matter. See:

    • Waldron, H.A.: »Lead Poisoning in the ancient World«. Medical History 1973(4). pp. 391–399.

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