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Roger Weller, geology instructor

by A. Nonymous
Physical Geology
Fall 2014

Lead the Great Destroyer


            Lead it has been used for thousands of years as tools, weapons, cooking utensils, paint, and even as a food additive.  In recent decades there has been a well-deserved campaign against lead use.  Why would humans all of a suddenly turn against something that had been so useful for years?  The answer is simple.  Lead kills us slowly.

            What is lead?  Lead is a naturally occurring metal in the carbon group.  Its atomic symbol is Pb and its atomic number is 82.  It is a soft, silver colored metal that tarnishes on contact with air.  When lead is mined the ore normally contains less than ten percent lead.   So in order to mine one ton of lead roughly ten tons of ore must be dug up.  Lead is somewhat rare and the top producer of lead currently is China.

            Lead was quite possibly one of the most important metals to the Romans.  Their plumbing systems were made out of it.  Matter of fact our word for plumbing comes from the Roman word for lead.  Romans also used lead for cookware and even an additive into wine because of its sweetness.  The Roman army also used lead in pellets for slingers.  So historians believe that lead may have led to the fall of the Roman Empire.  In medieval times alchemists would try to turn lead into gold.  Once guns were invented lead became used as projectiles for these weapons.  Lead was also used to create the metal pewter.  In more recent times lead has still been used for plumbing, although this has been phased out in recent years.  Lead has been used as paint in houses, this is now illegal.  Lead was used to paint baby cribs and toys for children.  In 1922 the League of Nations banned lead for this use, however the United States refused to follow this ban until much later.  Some criminologists believe that lead may be part of the cause of high crime in Chicago and Detroit, due to lead poisoning increasing violent behavior.  For quite a while lead was used as an additive into gasoline.  Looking back humans have made many mistakes in what we use in our daily lives.


Lead kills people and lead may make people kill other people.  How does lead do this?  Humans come into contact with lead by many different means.  Lead was used in paint and in containers.  Plumbing was made out of lead, which led to lead being in the water.  Cars that used leaded gasoline put lead into the air, as did factories, and lead smelters.  Lead affects the adult body by causing headaches, abdominal pain, memory loss, kidney failure, male reproductive problems, and weakness, pain, or tingling in the extremities.  Early signs of lead poisoning can be abdominal pain, nausea, diarrhea, constipation, muscle pain, depression, and loss of appetite.  Fetuses can be born with a low birth weight due to lead poisoning.  In children, lead poisoning can cause many of the same problems as adults but also some other problems including behavioral problems and learning disabilities.  Treatment of lead poisoning focuses on removing the source of the lead and treating the symptoms of the lead poisoning.  In some cases the lead build up in a patient may be so severe that doctors must surgically remove the lead from the patient.  Needless to say the best medicine for lead poisoning is prevention.


            Now it has been established that lead has many uses, but it is dangerously toxic.  Humans need many of the products that lead provides.  The good news is there are alternatives to lead based products.  The lead in pipes that was used for plumbing has now be replaced with ether plastic, iron or copper.  Lead has been banned as an additive to gasoline.  Lead based paint is also been banned.  Lead is still used in some objects such as bullets, however getting lead poisoning from a bullet is a very rare occurrence since the bullet tends to kill faster than lead does.  While it may take a while for humans to see the error of their ways, at least humans can change.

            Since lead paint was only banned in 1978 there are many areas that contain dangerous amounts of lead.  Fortunately reclamation of these areas are possible.  There are several ways to remove toxic lead paint from houses, such as scraping, replacement of painted areas, sandblasting, and chemical stripping.  These methods should only be done by experienced professionals.  Reclaiming land poisoned with lead is generally more difficult and includes stabilizing the area in concrete then chemically washing and removing the lead.  There is hope for recovering from past mistakes with lead.



            Lead is a very unique element.  Very few things in the world have killed so many, destroyed empires, and yet be so useful.   Lead history spans thousands of years and although itís not easy to mine still has been sought after by many.  Despite the alternatives and the health effects related to lead, it will continued to be used throughout the foreseeable future.

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