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Durham University

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Impact of lead in children of Roman Empire

(17 June 2021)

Researchers from our Department of Archaeology have found for the first time that widespread use of lead in Roman culture was one of the main contributing factors to childhood death and illness throughout the Roman Empire. 

The researchers analysed human skeletal remains from Spain, France, Romania and Lebanon, for the purpose of this study.

Children were more exposed to lead

Samples were collected from tooth enamel of the skeletons to analyse the concentrations of lead in both adults and children. The researchers found that younger children had significantly higher levels of lead in their tooth enamel than the adults.

The researchers pointed out that enamel does not change after it’s formed. As a result, lead pollution from childhood is stored in the tooth enamel throughout life and is not altered by the burial environment after death.

The study also highlights a positive connection between children who had high levels of exposure to lead pollution and children who died at a young age.

Downfall of Roman Empire

Previous historians have argued that widespread lead use may have contributed to the downfall of the Roman Empire. The research findings from this study indicate that lead poisoning was a strong contributing factor to the ill health and death of children in many parts of the Roman Empire.

The use of the heavy metal in a lot of everyday things such as water pipes, toys, cosmetics, and wine may have left Roman citizens with many serious health problems.

Researchers argue that, pollutants including heavy metals continue to be a key source of poor health and death for children in many parts of the world today.

Find out more

• Read the full paper published in Wiley Journal here
• Learn more about the work of Dr Joanna Moore, Prof Janet Montgomery, Prof Rebecca Gowland and Dr Kori Filipek
• Interested in studying in Durham? Explore our undergraduate and postgraduate courses in our Department of Archaeology