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The earliest known use of lead was in the Neolithic period; by Roman times it was in widespread use, despite recognition that it could have adverse effects on human health. The early smelting processes were inefficient, giving rise to atmospheric pollution; as this reduced with modern improvements in furnace design, so pollution due to the addition of tetraethyl lead to motor fuel emerged. The military use of lead was a further source of environmental contamination, while individuals were exposed to lead from water pipes, paint and solder in food cans. Studies of lead in ice cores recovered from Greenland demonstrated a 200-fold increase in lead concentration from 800 BCE to the 1960s, with the greatest increase occurring after 1940. The isotope signatures of lead enabled the sources of environmental contamination to be determined: industrial lead was responsible throughout most of the last millennium, with lead in fuel making the greatest contribution in recent times. The human impact was demonstrated in studies of archaeological and modern skeletal lead levels. This paper explores the history of the use of lead and the development of an understanding of its toxicity, and examines its impact on human health.

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