The Heavy Metal Burden in Ancient Societies

  • Tony Waldron
Part of the Proceedings in Life Sciences book series (LIFE SCIENCES)


There is no entirely satisfactory definition of what constitutes a ‘heavy metal’ but the group is generally taken to include at least the following: silver (atomic weight 108), cadmium (112), tin (119), antimony (112), platinum (195), gold (197), mercury (201), thallium (204) and lead (207). In their various ways, these metals have all been extremely important in human history because of their technological or commercial value. Four of the group (cadmium, lead, mercury and thallium) are toxic to man and all but thallium might have been encountered in different ways by peoples in antiquity.


Lead Concentration Lead Exposure Copper Deficiency Past Population Mercury Poisoning 
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Notes and references

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    Itai-itai disease, a form of senile osteoporosis which occurred in multiparous women in Japan, was thought by some to be caused by the use of cadmium rich water for irrigating rice. The water was taken from a river which had drained through a zinc-mining area. The disease is most likely to be a form of vitamin D deficiency, however, which may have been exacerbated by cadmium. Further information may be obtained from Cadmium and Health (ed L. Friberg, C.-G. Elinder, T. Kjellström & G.F. Nordberg), CRC Press, Boca Raton, 1985Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    In De architectura (VIII, 6), Vitruvius states that ‘water is much more wholesome from earthenware than from led pipes. For it seems to be made injurious by lead because cerusse is produced by it; and this is said to be harmful to the human body’.Google Scholar
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    Paul of Aegina who wrote in the 7th century AD describes a colic ‘having taken its rise in the country of Italy… which in many cases terminates in epilepsy, but in others in paralysis of the extremities’ (De re medica, III, 43). This is a clear reference to lead poisoning with encephalopathy and peripheral neuropathy.Google Scholar
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    See the discussion between Chapman and Paterson, for example. Chapman S (1987) Child abuse or copper deficiency? A radiological view. Brit Med J 294: 1370.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 1988

Authors and Affiliations

  • Tony Waldron
    • 1
  1. 1.Bounds Green LondonUK

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