Friday, September 29, 2017

Lead: Poisoning People for Fun and Profit #30

Lead kills. Everybody knows that. Lead is what bullets are made of. Bam. Acute case of lead poisoning. 

But lead itself, the elemental metal, (atomic number 82, symbol Pb) when not propelled by a charge of gunpowder through the cylinder of a gun, can still be lethal.

In fact, its widespread use has resulted in extensive environmental contamination and significant public health problems in many parts of the world.

Lead is a Major Hazard to Public Health. 

According to the World Health Organization these are some of the hazards:
  • Lead is a cumulative toxicant that affects multiple body systems and is particularly harmful to young children.
  • Lead in the body is distributed to the brain, liver, kidney and bones. It's stored in the teeth and bones, where it accumulates over time. Human exposure is usually assessed through the measurement of lead in blood.
  • Lead in bone is released into blood during pregnancy and becomes a source of exposure to the developing child.
  • There is no known level of lead exposure that is considered safe.
  • Lead poisoning is entirely preventable.

The WHO says lead was responsible for at least 830,000 deaths in 2013 alone, almost all accidental, mostly in the developing world.

History of Lead Use

And yet people have used it for over 6000 years. A lead necklace found in Turkey is thought to be 6000 to 8,000 years old and a lead mine nearby is at least 6500 years old.

The ancient Romans seem to have had a special fondness for lead. They used it in everything from wine to water pipes. In fact the word "plumbing" comes from the Latin word for lead, plumbum.

Ancient Romans added "sugar of lead" to their wine
There's a theory that many wealthy Romans unknowingly poisoned themselves with lead in the form of an artificial sweetener called "sugar of lead" (lead acetate.) I have to admit that before I researched this article, I had never heard of sugar of lead, but it's a thing.

The Romans had no sweetener but honey, but they would boil down the fruit mash left over from making wine in lead pans, and the acid in the fruit mash corroded the pans to form lead acetate, which had a sweet taste. They called it sapa and often added it to beverages.

In my five years of studying Latin, I never came across the word sapa/sapae but I guess most of those texts we slogged through had more to do with soldiering than wine-making.

The Romans knew sapa was powerful and could be dangerous, because ancient Roman hookers used it as a way to induce abortions, but they thought it was safe to drink a little mixed in with their wine.

I don't quite get this, since the area around Rome has been producing some very tasty wine for a couple of millennia now, without any added sweetener, but maybe some young Romans preferred a Boone's Farm type of alcoholic beverage. (Yes, for those of you waxing nostalgic for that sticky-sweet wine of your youth, they still make Boone's Farm Strawberry Hill and it's still cheap.)

But I digress…or maybe I don't. Who knows what damage we may have done to ourselves with all that Strawberry Hill?

The ancients did know that lead wasn't exactly good for you. Hippocrates wrote about a lead miner who had terrible symptoms from lead poisoning. 

Did Elizabeth I to Lose her Hair because of Lead Poisoning?

Obviously people didn't pay enough attention to Hippocrates.

Pope Clement II died in 1047 from drinking wine sweetened with sugar of lead (although many think this might have been administered purposely by an assassin.)

Europeans were still adding sugar of lead to wine in the late 1690s, when there was a severe outbreak of intestinal disease In the German city of Ulm, which was traced to wine from a monastery where they used lead acetate to sweeten their wine.

From the Renaissance through the 19th century, people used sugar of lead as a cosmetic and "cure" for skin ailments. That white face powder Elizabeth I made so fashionable was probably responsible for her losing her teeth and hair. The powder, called ceruse, could corrode the skin, cause tremors, and even kill. (Lead in cosmetics is believed to be what killed the famous London courtesan, Kitty Fisher.)

Lead has also been dangerous to painters, since a number of paints contain lead. In 1787, painter Albert Cristoph Dies accidentally swallowed lead acetate and although he recovered, he had symptoms the rest of his life. And it probably contributed to Francisco Goya's death.

When Beethoven died, doctors found his hair contained 100 times the normal level of lead.

There's evidence President Andrew Jackson died of lead poisoning too. His death had long been attributed to mercury poisoning from a medication he took regularly, but a study of hair clipped shortly before his death showed high levels of lead. It was probably caused by a bullet lodged in his shoulder for 20 years after a gunfight.

Lead as a Murder Weapon

In the 19th century, when people began to realize that lead could be lethal, it became a method of murder.

In 1882, Londoner Louisa Jane Taylor got a doctor to prescribe her some sugar of lead to treat a fictional skin disease. Instead she used it to poison a Mrs. Tregillis, the elderly lady she cared for.

Poisoner Louisa Taylor was hanged at Maidstone Prison

But what Mrs. Taylor didn't realize is that lead takes a long time to kill, and even though Mrs. Tregillis was dying, she lived long enough to testify against her murderer. She pointed to Taylor and stated she had seen her pour a white powder into her medicine. After Mrs. Tregillis died, Taylor was convicted of murder and hanged at Maidstone prison.

Symptoms of Lead Poisoning

The symptoms of acute lead poisoning of the type Mrs. Tregillis suffered, include blackened teeth, blue gums, and black vomit. Victims suffer sudden memory loss and confusion as well as intestinal distress, difficulty breathing, and often go into a coma.

Painter Albert Christoph Dies died of lead poisoning.

Slow lead poisoning can be lethal too, and so often people aren't aware they're being exposed. The dust of lead paint in a house can be a factor. So is drinking wine that has been kept in a lead crystal container. Some pottery glazes contain lead too. Also old metal toys, some Mexican candies and folk remedies for skin rashes and breast pain in nursing mothers.

The symptoms of slow lead poisoning:
  • Elevated blood pressure
  • Gout
  • Joint and muscle pain
  • Difficulties with memory or concentration
  • Headache
  • Abdominal pain
  • Mood disorders/aggression
  • Reduced fertility
  • Miscarriage, stillbirth or premature birth in pregnant women
  • Lowered IQ in children. 
Lower levels of lead poisoning can be treated with chelation therapy, either oral or intravenous. 

Lead in contemporary Life

Canada and the European Union have banned most lead compounds in gasoline, paint, and industrial uses since 2005. California lists it as a carcinogen.

But in most countries, lead acetate (good old sugar of lead) is still completely legal.

It's even present in Grecian Formula men's hair coloring.

I'm not sure a bottle of Grecian Formula would contain enough to kill, and it would be tough for a murderer to administer, I should think.

But lead acetate is still used in the US for textile dying, mixing paint, and also cleaning guns. It's available by mail order in the US contiguous 48 states.

For a crime writer, using lead as a murder weapon could work. If somebody drank lots of wine he kept in a lead crystal decanter, it might be possible to kill him undetected by adding lead acetate to the decanter.

As long as the murder doesn't take place in Canada or the EU, you might have the perfect (if unnecessarily nasty) murder.

Had you heard of "sapa" or sugar of lead? Did you know Elizabeth I lost her hair and teeth because of her make-up? 

Here's a list of all the poison posts in this series:

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THE BEST REVENGE: The prequel (Camilla Mystery #3)

When Camilla Randall, a 1980s New York debutante, is assaulted by her mother’s fianc√©, smeared in the newspapers by a sexy muckraking journalist, then loses all her money in the Savings and Loan Scandal, she seeks refuge with her gay best friend in California. But her friend has developed heterosexual tendencies and an inconvenient girlfriend, so Camilla has to move in with wild-partying friends. When a TV star ends up dead after one of their parties, Camilla is arrested for his murder. She must turn to a friendly sanitation worker, a dotty octogenarian neighbor and the muckraking journalist who ridiculed her--who also happens to be her boss. 

The Best Revenge is available at all the AmazonsSmashwordsKoboGoogle Play Apple, and NOOK. It's also available at Page Foundry (Inktera) and 24 Symbols


  1. ahhhh, loved the history. I remember playing with lead as a kid. I got my hands on this chunk my dad bought to make fishing sinkers. In Missouri where we lived for a year, I used to collect lead at a pond in the woods behind our house. A wonder I have an IQ of 10 (well, some might argue I don't)

    1. Hi Mac--Thanks for stopping by. There were so many other things I could have added, but I didn't want to make this too long. But those lead weights are a good example of how lead was all over our lives until recently. When I was a kid, we hung lead "icicles" on our Christmas trees. I used to love to wad them up in a ball. (Yes! It was so fun to play with.) Sometimes we'd chew on them. It's amazing we survived with any brain cells.

  2. I'm thinking you should put this series into a book, Anne. I'm amazed at the number of posts, and awed by your research! Not to mention write books! Right. Crime Writing! hey hey

    1. Thanks, Melodie! I really do need to do that. But I keep running into more poisons and thinking of more ways to kill people...haha.

  3. Sapa! Never heard of it, but I'm quite intrigued. And all these years I've been blaming male pattern baldness when it could've been the paint on the walls!

    1. CS--When even the Wordmonger doesn't know the word, I guess I shouldn't feel so bad I'd never heard of sapa. And who knows what dangers are lurking in that paint?