Lead Didn’t Bring Down Ancient Rome, But It’s Still a Modern Menace

Lead in Ancient Rome’s Water Was 100 Times More Than Natural Level

A scientist-led investigation in Rome has shown lead levels in water were at a considerably higher level than natural levels. The scientists believe that the high levels were around 100 times higher than what they should have been, however luckily not high enough to cause any substantial damage.

Water was brought into Rome via aqueducts and then distributed throughout the city in lead pipes, which is how the water became contaminated. Researchers believe that, although the levels of lead in the drinking water were concerning, it’s unlikely they would have been high enough to cause widespread mental problems, and probably wouldn’t have affected crime rate through lead poisoning.

Francis Albarede, leading investigator of the study at Claude Bernard University in Lyon, believes it’s “marginal” and that “even though they probably did not get degenerate, as some people say, or even get more violent; lead pollution might have been something to be concerned about.” The people of Rome are lucky that the levels of lead weren’t higher, as it could have been very damaging to anyone that consumed the water. Lead can have seriously damaging effects on both mental and physical health, and can even cause death.

The team of researchers, led by Albarede, drilled cores of sediment from Portus harbour basin and the canal in order to study the lead isotopes. The cores serve as a record of the contaminants from the river Tiber that runs through Rome. Contaminants are trapped within the sediment, acting a bit like a time capsule, revealing levels of environmental pollution from hundreds, or even thousands of years ago.

The results of the isotope investigation show that there were two different kinds of water within the river water. The first was natural river water, which carried lead isotopes, originally from the Apennine mountains and volcanic rock in Alban hills of South East Rome. The second kind was much cleaner drinking water that had been drained into the river, and contaminated with isotopes of lead that aren’t usually found in Italy.

Tests on the isotopes found that levels of lead in the Roman tap water varied over time from 14 to 105 times higher than levels found in natural spring water. Researches believe that the lead was mined somewhere else, like Eifel in Germany or the English Pennines, and then brought back in ingots to make lead piping.

Albarede has said that whatever health problems the lead contamination may have caused, he doesn’t believe that it would have brought the Roman civilisation to its knees.