We just can’t stop chasing the sweet, sweet taste of element 82.
Featured above: It’ll kill ya.
I’m still typing up the references for this episode, which should be here in totality within the next 24 hours. Possibly more show notes, as well, but for now, about that biogenic threat: Legionnaire’s disease and E. coli presented a threat just as fatal as the lead in those pipes, as this local newscast from 2016 shows:
Finally, we’ve arrived at lead. It’s surely an element you’ve heard of before, and you might think you already know the main points about lead: First and foremost, that it’s deadly toxic. You might also know that it’s been used in house paint and plumbing — in the past, but also in a shocking number of modern homes, too.
That’s not even the half of it. Lead has been responsible for some truly catastrophic public health crises, and we’ll cover some of them in this episode.
But it would be wrong to write off lead as just another poison that serves no good purpose. Throughout history, lead has actually served as one of the pillars of civilization, providing power for portable electrical devices, making our baubles more beautiful, acting as the main currency of warfare, and ironically enough, even having legitimate modern medical uses.
If you’ll forgive the pun, lead really is heavy stuff.
You’re listening to The Episodic Table Of Elements, and I’m T. R. Appleton. Each episode, we take a look at the fascinating true stories behind one element on the periodic table.
Today, we’re pondering lead.
With lead, we close the book on the metals humanity has known since antiquity. The Greeks called it “molybdos” long before Carl Wilhelm Scheele studied element 42, while the Romans called it “plumbum,” which explains its chemical symbol.
Lead is a metal that stands apart from its peers. It’s unconcerned with outshining silver and gold, nor does it compete with iron for strength and sturdiness. Lead is more of a metal of the people: Common, modest, and hardworking.
Those qualities make it suitable in a wide range of applications, from lining the hulls of ships to fire-resistant roofing, but perhaps no one used it more famously than the Romans. They employed it in their waterworks — aqueducts and especially their piping. So close is the association there that the Romans’ word for lead gives us the word “plumbing.”
Unfortunately, any advantages lead has in the realm of water transport are pretty substantially outweighed by its toxicity, as we know today.
The strange thing is, ancient Greeks and Romans knew that fact as well as we do. In the year 14 BCE, famed Roman architect Vitruvius advised against lead pipes in his written work, De Architectura: “Water is much more wholesome from earthenware pipes than from lead pipes,” he wrote. “For it seems to be made injurious by lead … rob[bing] the limbs of the virtues of the blood. Therefore it seems that water should by no means be brought in lead pipes if we desire to have it wholesome.”3
That’s not the only havoc element 82 can wreak, though. Depending on the rate and severity of exposure, lead poisoning can cause a vast array of symptoms, from abdominal pain to seizures to sterility, along with a whole suite of nervous system complications like hallucinations, depression, delirium, and coma. Death soon follows.
So why did they persist in using lead so widely?
Put simply, they were addicted to the substance. It’s not hard to see why. For starters, it doesn’t rust or decay in soil. Many metals are prone to springing pinhole leaks over time — but not lead. And before rubber became commonly available, lead was often the best way to seal joints in plumbing. So rather than stop using it, the Romans chose denial, downplaying the risks associated with the metal and carrying on like they always had. So did those of us far from the Mediterranean, and actually, we never really managed to kick the habit.
Flint, Michigan has rightly attracted a lot of attention for its lead-lined water supply, but it’s not really unusual in this regard. In 2017, Reuters found nearly 4,000 neighborhoods across the US with lead poisoning rates twice as high as Flint at its worst. 4 5 6 7 8 9(Lead plumbing also remains a problem in many other countries, but not to the same extent.)10 11
Flint has sort of become the poster child for the issue, though, and what went wrong there could easily go wrong in other American cities, so it’s worth covering exactly what happened.
For a long time, Flint drew its water from the same supply as Detroit, just 80 kilometers away. Flint had been struggling economically for decades, though, and by 2011 the city needed to make big changes if it were to balance the books. To address this, then-Governor Rick Snyder appointed four Emergency Managers: unelected officials that superseded the power of the mayor and other local governing bodies. Under those managers’ leadership, it was decided that the city would switch to an alternative water supply as a cost-cutting measure.12 13
Almost immediately after that switch happened, residents reported that their tap water was dark brown with a repulsive smell and taste. Some people experienced hair loss, rashes, and other acute maladies. Engine blocks made at a General Motors plant in Flint started coming off the line severely corroded.14
The root of the problem was the new water supply. Water from the Flint River was more acidic than what was previously running through the system, and on top of that, the new operators failed to provide basic, common water treatment like adding phosphate to the water. These factors combined to wash away decades of gunk that had accumulated on the interior of the system’s pipes. That gunk had served as a protective barrier against the lead of those same pipes, so after getting flushed through the system, it became freshly exposed and polluted Flint’s drinking water.
Twice the city insisted that the water was safe, even against objections from doctors and an offer from Detroit to revert to the old water supply. It took two years for anyone to admit there even was a problem — it all sounds rather Roman, really. Snyder’s eventual, inadequate response was to buy one million dollars’ worth of water filters and tests for the city.
The crisis was completely bungled for several more years. In August 2020, families affected by lead poisoning were awarded a settlement of more than six hundred million dollars. Snyder and a handful of other officials were charged with misdemeanors and felonies, including two counts of manslaughter.
Flint is back on the Detroit water system today, and Michigan now has some of the strictest drinking water regulations in the country. The EPA insists that Flint’s water is now safe to drink — and there have been a lot of improvements, but it’s hard to blame the city’s people if they’re a bit skeptical.15 16 17 18
In 2019, Flint resident Melissa Mays had this to say: “In some ways we’re better. In other ways, we’re forever poisoned, damaged, traumatized … that’s not gonna ever be better.”
So why haven’t all those cities dug up their lead pipes and replaced them with copper, or some space-age material? Unfortunately, it’s not quite as easy as that.
For starters, lead isn’t used for the really big main pipes. Most lead plumbing is found in old houses or at the point where a house taps in to the local water supply. That means they’re all over the place, and the homeowner might be the one responsible for replacing those pipes — an inconvenience that can easily cost them over $10,000.19 20Putting the onus on millions of individuals to make the right decision is far more difficult than making a concerted public health effort.
Except, even if there were a big, well-funded effort to replace lead pipes, there would be another problem: We’re not sure where they all are.
Partly, this is due to shoddy record keeping. Most American cities have no logs or maps of where lead pipes were installed, and what documentation does exist is usually stored on index cards and written in pencil. Cities that are already teetering on the brink of financial ruin often can’t afford to undertake the costly enterprise of digitizing those records. Instead, most places rely on hunting down lead with chemical tests.
But there’s a problem there, too: Dozens of cities have been caught cheating to conceal high levels of lead in their drinking water. They had many methods: deliberate use of tests that underestimate lead levels; non-compliance with time limits; and advising water departments to “re-sample” any results that violated federal regulations. Among those cities are Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, and Milwaukee. In some cases, those test results were faked with the assistance from the very federal department that’s supposed to enforce them: the Environmental Protection Agency.21
Lawsuits have been filed in several places, and some of those cases have even succeeded. But once again, that sort of piecemeal approach will inevitably leave some communities to remain in dangerous situations.
There is a third factor making it difficult to find all the lead pipes: Even when there is no malfeasance afoot, many lead tests simply aren’t very good at their job. In 2007, the Consumer Product Safety Commission found that half of their sampled home test kits provided false negatives for lead. In 2017, the FDA warned of similar problems with tests made by Magellan Diagnostics — a company that calls itself “the most trusted name in lead testing.”22 23And all that’s without taking into account the many tests that gave ambiguous results.
All those problems can be overcome, but only by spending a lot of money. “Infrastructure maintenance” doesn’t tend to get a lot of love as it is, regardless of how many lives it might save. At least we’re finally heading in the right direction, though. Each year, a little less lead contaminates the water we all drink.
Thankfully, we completely stopped pumping it into the air we breathe a long time ago.
Thomas Midgley had the kind of inquisitive, dauntless, optimistic mind that’s almost universally lauded in the history of science. But at least in this case, there’s little question the world would have been a far better place if he lacked those qualities.24
Early automobiles were quite different from the vehicles we drive around today. They were far simpler, of course, and had all kinds of problems that would be completely foreign to the modern driver. In the 1920s, one of those problems was “knocking” — fuel igniting too early or too late, causing a terrible racket and damage to the engine.
Midgley only knew one way of solving problems: Brute force. When he was a kid, he tried to invent a better spitball — the baseball technique in which a pitcher would surreptitiously apply a little spit to the ball, causing it to curve as it approached the batter. After countless attempts with any substance he could get his hands on, Midgley found that slippery elm bark had the greatest effect. His discovery became quite influential in the sport.
His approach to the engine knocking problem was basically the same. Over five years, he and his team tested 33,000 different fuel additives, anything from camphor to melted butter.25 26Eventually, they stumbled upon an answer: tetraethyl lead. Just a small amount of this substance could render a car’s engine practically silent. But the lead doesn’t disappear after streaming through a car’s engine, it goes right out the exhaust, filling the atmosphere and eventually the lungs of those unfortunate enough to be nearby.
This was well known at the time. In 1922, a Du Pont executive described tetraethyl lead as, “a colorless liquid of sweetish odor, very poisonous if absorbed through the skin, resulting in lead poisoning almost immediately.” Midgley was well aware of these facts. He simply didn’t care. “Can you imagine how much money we’re going to make with this?” he said during a phone call with his business partner. “We’re going to make 200 million dollars, maybe even more.”27
It was brought to market under the name “Ethyl,” you know, like the name of that sweet gal who operates the switchboard for Ma Bell, avoiding any mention of lead whenever possible.28
The first tank of “ethyl gasoline” was sold in February, 1923. Midgley couldn’t be there, though, since he was under the weather with a terrible case of lead poisoning. Maybe that could be chalked up to coincidence, but it wasn’t long before lead poisoning started to become a problem among factory workers. A few even died. Management insisted this had nothing to do with the product, though. One Standard Oil executive said those men “probably worked too hard.”
Internal memos at Standard, DuPont, and General Motors quietly acknowledged the hazard presented by tetraethyl lead, but Midgley went out in public and put on quite a show of how safe his product was. “I’m not taking any chance,” he proclaimed as he washed his hands in leaded gasoline and breathed deeply of its fumes. “Nor would I take any chance doing that every day.”29
He talked a good game, but Midgley wrote in private letters that the liquid burns and stings the skin, and he complained of “lead-lined lungs” that drove him to convalesce in the warm Florida sun. Oil plant workers continued to fall ill, but with tetraethyl lead filling the fuel tanks of cars worldwide, its effects were being felt far beyond the factory floor.
With smaller, still-developing bodies, children are the most susceptible to the irreversible effects of lead poisoning. Hyperactivity, learning disabilities, and brain damage in American children all rose in concert with the use of leaded gasoline. But tetraethyl lead carried an additional social cost beyond its direct effects on public health.
In 2000, US Department of Housing and Urban Development consultant Rick Nevin published research that the mental and developmental effects of lead poisoning in the country’s children could explain ninety percent of the variation in violent crime in America over the twentieth century. In other words, children who suffered the ill effects of atmospheric lead in the 1940s and 50s were more likely to perpetrate violent crime in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. Further research showed that those states that banned leaded gasoline first saw violent crime rates decline in tandem.30 31
Obviously there are many factors that cause crime to rise and fall, but in this case the research is clear clear: stunting the health and development of children by steadily filling their lungs with lead was a major factor.
Research had clearly shown the deleterious effects of leaded gasoline well in advance of the 21st century. In the US, it started getting phased out in the 1970s, and it was outright banned nationwide by the mid-90s. In most of the world, lead hasn’t been an ingredient in gasoline for several decades.32
Astonishingly, that wasn’t the full extent of the harm caused by Thomas Midgley. In the 1930s, he pioneered the development of chlorofluorocarbons as a refrigerant. They became as widespread as his prior invention, and if you listened to the news in the 90s, you probably remember that they were one of the leading causes for damage to the Earth’s ozone layer.33
It’s astounding that one human can be held responsible for so much damage to life on Earth. Environmental historian J. R. McNeill has claimed that Thomas Midgley is “the single most dangerous organism in the history of the Earth.” He in stark opposition to this program’s stated rejection of the Heroic Theory of Scientific Discovery, although I’d say he is at best more of an antihero.
And who knows how much more devastation he might’ve caused were it not for his untimely death? In 1940, he contracted polio, which eventually rendered him paralyzed from the waist down. Yet not even this could stop his lamentably inventive and unwavering spirit. He devised a novel system of ropes and pulleys that allowed him to independently lift himself out of bed and into a wheelchair.
As tragic as it is, then, it’s not really so surprising to learn that he eventually died not from polio, but as a victim of cosmic irony. One morning in 1944, while struggling to get out of bed, he became tangled up among the device’s cables and wires. He choked to death, a victim of his own ingenuity.
You can see why lead has earned a somewhat solemn reputation. In one of her poems, Emily Dickenson evoked the cold, heavy metal while describing the pangs of death and grief:
After a great pain, a formal feeling comes-
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs-
The stiff Heart questions was it He, that bore,
And Yesterday, or Centuries before?
The Feet, mechanical, go round
of Ground, or Air, or Ought-
A Wooden way
A Quartz contentment, like a stone-
This is the Hour of Lead-
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow-
First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –
Peter Reich, a consulting author for the Environmental Defense Fund, noted in a 1992 paper a biochemical association alongside the poetic one: “Though the poet describes was describing emotions rather than lead poisoning,” he wrote, “the poem aptly describes some of the symptoms of lead intoxication.”34
It’s a little funny that we’ve spent so much time talking about the hazards of lead without mentioning bullets — perhaps the most common way that element 82 has claimed lives. Certainly the most deliberate.
Yet lead’s reputation isn’t exclusively an ignominious one. Removed from our paints, our fuels, our batteries, and our construction materials, the average person is now most likely to have their livelihood protected by lead, rather than claimed by it. Being so dense and relatively abundant, it makes an effective and inexpensive material to shield against ionizing radiation. The apron you might wear at the dentist’s office when the technician x-rays your teeth is one such example of this use. On a grander scale, it can often be found performing a similar duty in nuclear facilities.
So don’t be too hard on old plumbum. It’s not malicious, just something that demands respect and care. It’s certainly capable of causing great harm, but like many of the elements on the periodic table, it could just as well save your life under the right circumstances. When collecting lead, just be mindful of the condition of your sample, wear protective gear if possible, and try to stay out of the way of any lead moving at an especially high velocity.
Thanks for listening to The Episodic Table of Elements. Music is by Kai Engel. To learn about the biogenic threat that was also present in Flint’s water supply, visit episodic table dot com slash P b.
Next time, we’ll put a little pep in our step with bismuth. Looking at my calendar for the near future, I’m going to go ahead and preemptively say that it’ll take me a little longer than usual to put that episode together, so it should air on Monday, June 14. I know it took a while to produce this episode, and I appreciate the very kind and understanding comments some of you left on the blog. I might be operating on a slightly slower schedule through the summer, but my plan is to be back on our regular fortnightly track by August.
Until next time, this is T. R. Appleton, reminding you that it’s not always such a good thing to leave a mark on history.
- Yahoo!, Corroded Engine Blocks Lead GM To Escape Flint’s Tainted Water. February 1, 2016.
- Jalopnik, What General Motors Did To Flint. Ryan Felton, April 28, 2017.
- Roman Civilization, Selected Readings Volume II, p. 218. Edited by Meyer Reinhold and Naphtali Lewis, 1990.
- Reuters, Reuters Finds 3,810 U.S. Areas With Lead Poisoning Double Flint’s. M. B. Pell and Joshua Schneyer, November 14, 2017.
- Scientific American, Thousands Of U.S. Areas Afflicted With Lead Poisoning Beyond Flint’s. M. B. Pell and Joshua Schneyer, December 19, 2016.
- RealClearScience, Why Does The U.S. Still Have So Many Lead Water Pipes? Ross Pomeroy, October 17, 2019.
- Laborers’ Health And Safety Fund Of North America, Thousands Of U.S. Cities Have Worse Lead Problems Than Flint. February, 2017.
- CBS News, Lead In America’s Water Systems Is A National Problem. Rachel Layne, November 21, 2018.
- Esquire, The Nation’s Poisonous Water Problem Is Far Worse Than You Think. Charles P. Pierce, June 2, 2016.
- Journal Of Water Health, Is There Still A Problem With Lead In Drinking Water In The European Union? C. R. Hayes and N. D. Skubala, December 2009.
- Canadian Underground Infrastructure, Lead Pipes Still A Problem In Canada. Kaitlyn Till, February 19, 2016.
- Smithsonian Magazine, Scientists Now Know Exactly How Lead Got Into Flint’s Water. Ben Panko, February 3, 2017.
- ABC News, Key Moments In Flint, Michigan’s Lead-Tainted Water Crisis. The Associated Press, January 12, 2021.
- CBS News, Flint’s Water Crisis Started With The Flip Of A Switch. Alexandra Zuckerman, March 17, 2016.
- NPR, 5 Years After Flint’s Water Crisis Began, Is The Water Safe? Steve Carmody, April 25, 2019.
- FRONTLINE, The EPA Says Flint’s Water Is Safe — Scientists Aren’t So Sure. Karen Pinchin, September 10, 2019.
- Politico, Flint Has Clean Water Now. Why Won’t People Drink It? Derek Robertson, December 23, 2020.
- ABC News, Driven By Flint Water Crisis, EPA Issues New Rule To Tackle Lead In Drinking Water. Stephanie Ebbs, October 10, 2019.
- Detroit Free Press, Where Are The Lead Pipes? In Many Cities, We Just Don’t Know. John Wisely and Todd Spangler, February 28, 2016.
- WHYY, Utilities Don’t Know Where Lead Pipes Are, And Water Testing Offers Limited Safety Assurances. Irina Zhorov, March 21, 2016.
- The Guardian, At Least 33 US Cities Used Water Testing ‘Cheats’ Over Lead Concerns. Oliver Millman and Jessica Glenza, June 2, 2016.
- NPR, Common Lead Test Can Give False Results, FDA Warns. Nell Greenfieldboyce, May17, 2017.
- ABC 12 News, 128 Blood Lead Tests In Flint May Not Be Accurate. Jessica Dupnack, May 17, 2017.
- The Chemical Engineer, th. Claudia Flavell-White, July 1, 2010.
- Smithsonian Magazine, Leaded Gas Was A Known Poison The Day It Was Invented. Kat Eschner, December 9, 2016.
- History.com, GM Engineers Discover That Leaded Gas Reduces “Knock” In Auto Engines.
- Interesting Engineering, Thomas Midgley Jr.: The Man Who Harmed The World The Most. Susan Fourtané, August 6, 2018.
- SciHi Blog, Thomas Midgley Jr. And The Development Of Leaded Fuel. Tabea Tietz, May 18, 2016.
- Dayton Innovation Legacy, Thomas Midgley Jr.–The Price Of Progress. Mark Martell.
- National Bureau Of Economic Research, Environmental Policy As Social Policy? The Impact Of Childhood Lead Exposure On Crime. Jessica Wolpaw Reyes, May 2007.
- Mother Jones, Lead: America’s Real Criminal Element. Kevin Drum, January/February 2013.
- U.S. Energy Information Administration, Leaded Gasoline Was Gradually Taken Off The Market.
- Smithsonian Magazine, One Man Invented Two Of The Deadliest Substances Of The 20th Century. Kat Eschner, May 18, 2017.
- The Hour Of Lead: A Brief History Of Lead Poisoning In The United States, Over The Past Century And Of Efforts By The Lead Industry To Delay Regulation. Peter Reich, 1992.