Researchers Think Lead Poisoning Hastened Fall of Rome

Tuesday, 22 Apr 2014 02:56 PM

By Courtney Coren

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Lead poisoning may have contributed to the fall of the Roman Empire, says a report from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Ancient Rome is famous for its advanced plumbing system, which brought water from the Tiber River to the ancient capital, but the water brought into the homes of wealthy Romans came through lead pipes and the beverages they consumed were made in lead vessels, Science magazine reports.

A team of researchers analyzed the lead isotopes in the harbor basin at Portus, which is downstream from Rome and a maritime port of the ancient empire. They also took sediment from a channel that connected the port to the Tiber. They compared the isotopes to those in sediment from preserved Roman lead pipes and found "that 'tap water' from ancient Rome had 100 times more lead than local spring waters."

The hypothesis that the Roman empire may have been brought down by lead poisoning was first offered over 30 years ago by environmental chemist Jerome Nriagu in his book "Lead and Lead Poisoning in Antiquity." Many have since tried to refute his conclusion.

While most agree that lead poisoning was not the primary cause of Rome's demise, some historians think it may have helped hasten the fall.

According to the research team, historical accounts show changes in lead pollution in the ancient civilization after major events, and they hope their findings will assist historians as they study changes that took place in Rome, especially in the post-empire years.


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