Ancient Rome’s Demise Probably Not Caused By Lead Poisoning

May 16, 2014- While it’s true that wealthy Romans sipped beverages from lead vessels and channeled spring water into their homes through lead pipes, scientists say it’s unlikely that lead contamination was high enough to be extremely harmful.

Some historians have said that lead poisoning plagued the Roman elite with diseases such as gout and hastened the empire's fall. But a team of archaeologists and scientists has discovered how contaminated Roman tap water really was.

The team dredged sediment downstream from Rome in the harbor basin at Portus, a maritime port of imperial Rome, and from a channel connecting the port to the Tiber River. Researchers compared the lead isotopes in their sediment samples with those found in preserved Roman piping to create a historical record of lead pollution flowing from the Roman capital. They report that tap water from ancient Rome likely contained up to 100 times more lead than local spring water, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

While the lead contamination was measureable, the team says the levels were unlikely high enough to be extremely harmful, ruling out tap water as a major culprit in Rome's demise.

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