JERUSALEM, Israel — Toxic metals, like lead, are major components in the technology people regularly use around the world. However, harmful exposure to lead is nothing new. In fact, a new study reveals humans have been absorbing these metals into their bodies for thousands of years. Researchers in Israel have discovered lead contamination in the bones of humans as far back as 12,000 years ago. They warn that modern technology may only make the problem worse.
A team from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem examined the human remains at a burial ground in Italy that remained in use until the 17th century. From the fragments of 130 people at the site in Rome, researchers analyzed the composition of chemicals in each person’s bones. Their findings reveal that the levels of lead pollution in human bones closely mirrors the historical rates of lead production worldwide throughout the centuries.
Study authors add that as the world began to mine for rare metals and produce more goods using them, the rate of lead absorption into people increased as well. This is true not only for people with the most exposure to lead, but also people simply breathing it in.
Lead’s long history with the human race
Today, many people probably think of lead being something you find in paint and metal pipes. However, the first lead boom took place 2,500 years ago with the production of coins. According to researchers, this period reached its peak during the time of the Roman Empire before falling off again during the Middle Ages. Around 1,000 years ago, lead production rose again, sparked by the mining of silver in Germany. After that, expansion into the Americas and the Industrial Revolution sent lead production (and exposure) to new heights.
“This documentation of lead pollution throughout human history indicates that, remarkably, much of the estimated dynamics in lead production is replicated in human exposure. Thus, lead pollution in humans has closely followed their rates of lead production,” explains Professor Yigal Erel in a media release. “Simply put: the more lead we produce, the more people are likely to be absorbing it into their bodies. This has a highly toxic effect.”
New technology may make lead exposure worse than ever
Despite global regulations banning many harmful toxins from use, study authors say even the “cleanest” products today may increase human exposure to toxic metals. The team specifically notes that electronic devices, batteries, solar panels, and even wind turbines are in high demand and can increase global metal pollution levels. Erel says lead exposure takes place in all sorts of ways, from our diets, to air pollution, to soil absorption.
“The close relationship between lead production rates and lead concentrations in humans in the past, suggests that without proper regulation we will continue to experience the damaging health impacts of toxic metals contamination,” the study lead author warns.
Erel adds that even green technology, like solar panels that deteriorate over time, release their toxic elements into the air we breathe as they break down. The result may lead future studies to find even more lead in our bones than ever before.
“Any expanded use of metals should go hand in hand with industrial hygiene, ideally safe metal recycling and increased environmental and toxicological consideration in the selection of metals for industrial use.”
The study appears in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.