Home' Trinidad and Tobago Guardian : April 9th 2016 Contents A26
body and soul
Guardian www.guardian.co.tt Saturday, April 9, 2016
For most of the last 5,000 years, people saw lead
as a miracle metal at the forefront of technology.
"You can think about lead as kind of the plastic of
the ancient world," says Joseph Heppert, a professor
of chemistry at the University of Kansas. He says it
was because lead is easy to melt---a campfire alone
can do it. Unlike iron, lead is malleable.
"Once you form it into sheets you can do things
that people had really never been able to do before
with a metal," he says. "You can roll it into tubes, for
example." It started with the Romans, who plumbed
their famous baths with lead water pipes and lined
aqueducts with lead. They called lead plumbum, which
was where the word "plumbing" came from. Romans
added lead into things ranging from makeup and con-
traception to cookware.
Chris Warren, a professor of history at Brooklyn
College, says Romans even sweetened their food with
lead. "Sugar of lead, as they call it, was used as a
direct additive, but also used in winemaking to control
fermentation," Warren says. After the fall of Rome,
alchemists and inventors found new uses for lead, like
printing. Johannes Gutenberg used movable lead type
in his revolutionary machine. Three hundred years
later, Benjamin Franklin was still using it to warn about
lead-tainted liquor. By the Industrial Revolution, lead
was a well-known killer. But it was just so handy.
The lead industry liked to call lead "the useful
metal." It was adaptable to just about any commercial
purpose, including mass-produced lead plumbing,
lead alloys and beautiful leaded glass. Heppert says
it also did wonders for gasoline. "Tetraethyl lead was
kind of a miracle substance," Heppert says. Then,
there was lead paint. Americans came to grips with
its toxicity to children in the late 1960s. Regulators
in the United States banned the use of leaded house
paint in 1978 and phased out leaded gas by the mid-
90s. But America---or the world---is not using any
less lead. In fact, lead holds the power that starts just
about every car, bus, motorbike and boat.
"About 90 per cent of lead today is used in lead
batteries; about three-quarters of that is actually used
in vehicles," says Andy Bush, managing director of
the International Lead Association in London. He says
lead batteries also provide power to hospitals, cell
towers and railroad crossing gates. Bush says that in
the United States, 99 per cent of lead batteries are
recycled. Lead is treated much more carefully these
days compared with in the past. In the United States,
lead is sequestered, a process strictly enforced in places
like EnerSys, a lead battery plant in Warrensburg, Mo.
Inside the plant, the smell is bracing and acidic. A
few of the workers wear respirators. In one section,
yellow robots bend and twist, building batteries with
Before it was dangerous,
lead was the miracle metal
These children from Haina,
Dominican Republic, are
as a result of lead poisoning.
PHOTO BY BLACKSMITH
News and advice
KEY FACTS ABOUT LEAD
freaky speed and precision.
"It s a technological ballet. Through this level of
automation, we re providing a cleaner environment
for our operators and again, providing a safer envi-
ronment," says Steven Jones, plant manager at EnerSys.
EnerSys safety specialist Adam Bressler says the risk
of acute lead poisoning here is under control. (NPR)
• Lead is a cumulative toxicant that affects
multiple body systems and is particularly
harmful to young children.
• Childhood lead exposure is estimated to
contribute to about 600,000 new cases of
children developing intellectual disabilities every
• Lead exposure is estimated to account for
143,000 deaths per year with the highest
burden in developing regions.
• About one half of the burden of disease
from lead occurs in the WHO South-East Asia
Region, with about one-fifth each in the WHO
Western Pacific and Eastern Mediterranean
• Lead in the body is distributed to the brain,
liver, kidney and bones. It is stored in the teeth
and bones, where it accumulates over time.
Human exposure is usually assessed through
the measurement of lead in blood.
• There is no known level of lead exposure
that is considered safe.
• Lead poisoning is entirely preventable.
(World Health Organization)
YOUR DAILY HEALTH
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