Greek poet and physician Nicander of Colophon isn’t a household name today, but his interest in poisons in the mid-second century B.C. inspired him to write two poems on the subject: Theriaca and Alexipharmaca. These two poems also happen to be the oldest existing works available to us on substances that can make us sick or kill us.
Theriaca covers venomous snakes (including the elusive amphisbaena, which had a head at both ends of its body), spiders, and scorpions. Nicander’s remedy for snake bite, incidentally, was a balsam of the flesh of mating snakes, stag’s marrow, wax, rose, and olive oil applied to the skin.
Alexipharmaca leans more toward the vegetable and mineral poisons, but it also includes the earliest written observation of acute lead poisoning. Nicander described the effect as a frothing of the mouth, asperity of the tongue, and a dry throat accompanied by dry retching, chills, delusions, and overwhelming fatigue. The treatment? Nicander suggested various herbs and olive oil as an emetic to induce vomiting.
Today, we know more about lead’s etiology than we did two millennia ago, but, like the ancient Romans, who were the first people to use lead widely, we have a history of thinking that exposure to small doses of the metal poses no harm. The Roman Empire produced more than 80,000 metric tons of lead annually at its height and used the substance for everything from cooking utensils to plumbing. (By comparison, the U.S. produced 1.6 million metric tons of lead in 2012.) However, there is no concrete evidence that the effects of lead poisoning caused the fall of the Roman Empire.
Speaking of plumbing, lead pipes were also used throughout the United States in 1800s for making drinking water available; by 1900, more than 70 percent of cities with 30,000 or more residents were using lead-based products for conveying water because they were relatively cheap and easy to work with. Although the toxic effects of lead were known at the time, there was no concerted effort to ban lead plumbing until the 1920s.
Lead may not have been the healthiest choice for conveying water, but it had many other consumer applications. The early 1920s also happened to mark the peak in sales of white lead pigments for interiors of American homes and the first commercial sales of leaded gasoline.
Of course, as we know now, those products proved to be unhealthful, too. Thanks, in part, to epidemiologist and pediatrician Philip J. Landrigan’s detailed studies of lead poisoning in children near ASARCO’s El Paso, Texas, smelting plant in the 1970s, the federal government enacted a number of laws that banned lead from gasoline, paint, water pipes, and food cans, and set exposure limits for workers. Average blood lead levels among U.S. adults fell from 13.1 micrograms per deciliter (μg/dL) between 1976 and 1980 to 1.09 micrograms per deciliter in 2012; there was a corresponding drop in blood lead levels of American children as well. The result was one of this country’s most significant public health achievements in the past 50 years.