Poisoned Plumbing

Pipe materials plagued Roman civilizations


Recently, US cities with aging infrastructure have experienced contamination events within their water delivery systems. This is unfortunately not a new occurrence as Danish archaeological chemist, Kaare Lund Rasmussen, recently confirmed when he analyzed the residues on ancient water pipes from Pompeii, Italy. And his in-depth study has revealed an unexpected culprit.

Archaeologists have known for decades that Roman water pipes were the source of health problems for ancient Romans, but most believed that the cause was the pipes’ lead composition.

“However, this thesis is not always tenable,” Lund Rasmussen explained to Phys.org. “A lead pipe gets calcified rather quickly, thereby preventing the lead from getting into the drinking water. In other words, there were only short periods when the drinking water was poisoned by lead: for example, when the pipes were laid or when they were repaired: assuming, of course, that there was lime in the water, which there usually was.” The constant contamination source remained a mystery.

Therefore, Lund Rasmussen performed a chemical analysis on a small, 40-mg metal pipe fragment from Pompeii. After he dissolved the sample in concentrated nitric acid, he transferred 2 mL of the dissolved sample to a loop and injected it as an aerosol in a stream of argon gas, heated to 6000°C. This process ionized the elements and conveyed them as an ion beam into a mass spectrometer so that Lund Rasmussen was able to measure the concentration of each of the elements within the sample.

What he discovered was an extraordinarily high concentration of an element called antimony mixed in with the lead. According to experts, antimony occurs naturally in groundwater near volcanoes. Therefore, Pompeii’s proximity to Mount Vesuvius may have contributed to the prevalence of the element. However, antimony is also acutely toxic, particularly irritating to the stomach and bowels.

Lund Rasmussen explains: “The concentrations were high and were definitely problematic for the ancient Romans. Their drinking water must have been decidedly hazardous to health.”

So, while the ancient Romans were famous for their advanced water delivery system, experts believe that the drinking water in the pipelines most likely caused daily vomiting and diarrhea, as well as long-term liver and kidney damage.

With the current state of America’s infrastructure, it’s more important today than ever for water utilities to ensure that distribution systems are functioning properly and that water chemistries meet regulatory standards. What extra steps does your organization take to ensure that history doesn’t repeat itself? WE_bug_web

  • Dr Edo McGowan.

    One way out of bad water had historically been to make an alcoholic beverage. That logic may not have been lost on the Romans. The elite may have used lead vessels. Wines can run a low pH, somewhere between 3 and 4. That acid level would seem to easily pull lead into the wine.

    • Laura S.

      Very true. That’s a great point. Are you familiar with the work of Dr. Partick McGovern? Much of his work as a biomolecular archaeologist has been in analyzing residues from earthen vessels to determine the contents. Fascinating stuff!

  • Hank Pineda.

    There is also a small addition of lead to drinking water from background concentrations of lead in soil. Alas this small amount of lead concentration dose adds to the potential poison. Hank Pineda, CAC, CDPH Risk Assessor

  • steve ruden, biologist.

    100’s of thousands of tons of lead were spewed into the atomosphere from the addition of tetra-ethel-lead additives to gasoline in the 20th Century (a practice mostly ended, at least in the United States in the 1970’s). Where did all that lead go… into soils and dusts near highways (children in ghettos lungs-not paint chips) Consider plumes over watersheds… this was ‘old news in the 70’s… like ‘climate change it was kept of the ‘news by petrochemical industries… oh well!!??


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