Scientific research has revealed that the amount of lead contamination in the water in ancient Rome was potentially dangerous. Rome’s aqueducts allowed for the mass distribution of tap water to its population, but while the source was fresh, it would have become contaminated as it passed through a large network of lead pipes.
Tests on sediments taken from the river Tiber have shown that Roman tap water contained lead levels up to 105 times higher than natural spring water. Sediments capture contaminants and studies of sediment cores taken from drilling riverbeds can reveal ancient levels of environmental pollution. This has led to speculation that a form of mass lead poisoning and consequent mental problems may have been an underlying cause of the fall of the Roman Empire.
It’s a bit far fetched, but the underlying evidence is that there would have been widespread health risks to the local population from continual exposure to lead in their drinking water. It also demonstrates that although the Romans were forward thinking in many aspects, including plumbing, their materials ultimately let them down.
There are plenty of homes today in the UK that still have lead water pipes, a legacy of a time when lead was considered the best material for plumbing. Its softness made it easy to work with. The word plumbing itself is derived from the Latin for lead, plumbum.
Times have changed and awareness of the dangers of lead poisoning is now well established. Houses built after 1970 no longer have lead pipework. If you live in an older property, lead pipe replacement is the best way of making sure you’re not leaving yourself exposed unnecessarily.
We can learn a lot from history, but it’s important to get things right in the present.