Lead piping 'unlikely' to have poisoned Romans


Some historians put the collapse of Roman civilisation down to lead poisoning, thanks to the vast networks of lead pipes used to supply water in cities. But a recent analysis of river sediments found that although ancient Rome’s ‘tap water’ was polluted by lead from plumbing, it wouldn't have caused serious illness.1

A team led by Hugo Delile at the University of Lyon in France used ratios of the isotopes lead-204 and lead-206 to calculate lead pollution in the Italian river the Tiber that would have come from the pipes in Roman cities. They did this by measuring the isotopic ratios in riverbed sediments, as well as in five ancient water pipes from Rome. They then worked out the fraction of lead in river water that leached from the pipes, and showed that the pipes had increased the lead content in water by up to two orders of magnitude. But they concluded the actual concentrations of lead that would have been consumed are ‘unlikely to have represented a major health risk’.

The role of lead pollution in the decline of the Roman empire is still a subject of debate. Thirty years ago, geologist Jerome Nriagu argued that lead poisoning was a major driving force,2 but others have been unwilling to accept this as the sole cause. This analysis suggests that while the use of lead pipes may have raised lead levels in the drinking water of ancient Rome, it wouldn't have been enough to cause serious poisoning.


Related Content

Digging deep for safer water

27 March 2014 Premium contentFeature

news image

Arsenic-laced water is still poisoning millions of people in Asia. Nina Notman looks to see if an end is in sight

New report concludes Arafat was not poisoned

6 December 2013 News and Analysis

news image

French team claims radiation traces in the former Palestinian leader's body are natural

Most Read

Sun rises on new solar route to hydrogen

27 February 2015 Research

news image

Photocatalyst has solar-to-hydrogen conversion efficiency of 2% and points way to cheap production of the gas

The mothers of invention

24 February 2015 Managing Change

news image

Nina Notman profiles four researchers successfully balancing an academic career with family life

Most Commented

Sun rises on new solar route to hydrogen

27 February 2015 Research

news image

Photocatalyst has solar-to-hydrogen conversion efficiency of 2% and points way to cheap production of the gas

Hepatitis C drug patent challenged in Europe

19 February 2015 Business

news image

Campaign group says Gilead’s expensive blockbuster sofosbuvir is not innovative enough to warrant a patent