Burial site shows rising levels of lead pollution over 12,000 years in human bodies

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The site revealed information about lead pollution in human bodies (Hebrew University)
An ancient burial site has revealed information about lead pollution in human bodies. (Hebrew University)

A burial site in central Italy that has been used for 12,000 years shows the shocking impact of lead pollution on human bodies, according to researchers. 

As worldwide lead production began and increased, people absorbed the toxic metal into their bodies – even if they were not involved in producing lead. 

People absorb lead simply by breathing the air around them, according to a study by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. 

The study could have important implications for the use of heavy metals, with demand forecast to soar for use in electronic devices, batteries, solar panels and wind turbines.

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Professor Yigal Erel at Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Institute of Earth Sciences said: “The more lead we produce, the more people are likely to be absorbing it into their bodies. This has a highly toxic effect.

“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.

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 “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.”

Lead use has had peaks and troughs through human history. 

One big boost in lead production began 2,500 years ago with coin production, an uptick that reached its peak during the Roman period before declining during the Middle Ages.  

Beginning 1,000 years ago, lead production was on the rise again, prompted by silver mining in Germany, then mining in the New World, and finally to meet the demands of the Industrial Revolution.

The scientists analyzed bone fragments from 130 people who lived in Rome, from as early as 12,000 years ago (well before the advent of metal production) until the 17th century.  

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The researchers were able to compute the level of lead pollution over time, and showed that it closely mimicked the rate of worldwide lead production.

The researchers warned against increased use of lead and other toxic metals.

Lead can be found throughout our daily lives in the form of batteries and the new generation of solar panels that deteriorate over time and release their toxicity into the air we breathe and the soil from which we grow our crops.  

Erel said: “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.”

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