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Research Links Metal Production and Toxic Lead Exposure in Humans

In the progressive industrialized world, what is produced “out there” has a direct effect on what happens inside the human body.

Image Credit: Tatiana Grozetskaya

Recent research by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (HU) discloses the connection between rates of metal production and toxic lead exposure in humans. The scientists carefully analyzed human remains from a burial ground in central Italy that was in continuous use for 12,000 years.

The researchers identified that as global lead production started and increased, so did the rates of lead absorption found in individuals who lived during that time — even people who were not remotely involved in lead production — simply by breathing the air around them.

This observation of the harmful effects of metal pollution has extensive implications for public health with the predicted increase in the manufacture of lead and other metals to match the manufacturing demands for batteries, electronic devices, wind turbines, solar panels, etc.

Professor Yigal Erel from HU’s Institute of Earth Sciences headed the research along with HU co-workers Professor Liran Carmel, Adi Ticher and Ofir Tirosh, as well as Ron Pinhasi from the University of Vienna and Alfredo Coppa from the Sapienza University of Rome. The study outcomes were published in the Environmental Science and Technology journal.

Lead is often associated with pipes and paint. However, lead manufacture has a rich history, starting several millennia ago. A great boost in lead manufacture started 2,500 years ago with coin production, an uptick that attained its peak during the Roman Period before declining during the Middle Ages.

Starting 1,000 years ago, lead manufacture was on the rise again, urged by silver mining in Germany, later in the New World and eventually to address the demands of the Industrial Revolution.

Although increases in lead production rates are noticed in the environmental archives such as sediments from lakes and glaciers, lead concentrations in human teeth and bones rarely revealed the outside story of global lead production rates so far.

As part of their study, the researchers examined bone fragments from 130 individuals who lived in Rome, from as early as 12,000 years ago — way before the emergence of metal production — until the 17th century. An investigation of the elemental composition found in the bones enabled the researchers to compute the level of lead pollution over time and revealed that it accurately mirrored the rate of global lead production.

This documentation of lead pollution throughout human history indicates that, remarkably, much of the estimated dynamics in lead production is replicated in human exposure. Thus, lead pollution in humans has closely followed their rates of lead production. Simply put: the more lead we produce, the more people are likely to be absorbing it into their bodies. This has a highly toxic effect.

Yigal Erel, Professor, Institute of Earth Sciences, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Apart from the history lesson in lead manufacture rates, exposure from former times is a precursor for the health impacts of lead manufacture for the ever-industrializing world today and in the future.

Various research works elucidate the harmful impacts of lead exposure in individuals, particularly in children, which occurs through diet, urban soil resuspension and air pollution. Besides these concerns, there is an ever-increasing demand for metals in the manufacturing of electronic devices.

The close relationship between lead production rates and lead concentrations in humans in the past, suggests that without proper regulation we will continue to experience the damaging health impacts of toxic metals contamination.

Yigal Erel, Professor, Institute of Earth Sciences, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Although individuals most directly affected by these toxic effects are those with the highest exposure to lead, particularly miners and employees in recycling facilities, lead is found in daily lives in the form of batteries and the new generation of solar panels that deteriorate with time and release their toxicity into the air and the soil from which crops are grown.

Any expanded use of metals should go hand in hand with industrial hygiene, ideally safe metal recycling and increased environmental and toxicological consideration in the selection of metals for industrial use.

Yigal Erel, Professor, Institute of Earth Sciences, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Journal Reference:

Erel, Y., et al. (2021) Lead in Archeological Human Bones Reflecting Historical Changes in Lead Production. Environmental Science and Technology.


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