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QUESTION: Ancient Medicine: The Ongoing Debate about Lead Poisoning in the Roman Empire 13 Dec 2007 Zuid-Holland, The Netherlands

 Dear Madam, Sir,

I'm writing my thesis on Ancient Medicine: The Ongoing Debate about Lead poisoning in the Roman Empire.

One of the rather vague points of discussion is the use of lead white as a cosmetic to give the skin a whiter, unblemished look. The vagueness is not about the use of lead white as face paint (we've got ample literary proof of that) but whether white lead can be absorbed through the skin. Leaded petrol gets absorbed by the skin, but this is because it's (and please correct me if I'm wrong) an inorganic form of lead (?) which does not occur in nature (?) and the Romans did not know how to make (?) (I'm a historian, not a chemist)

My question therefore is: could you direct me to a publication where it is proved or disproved that the lead in white lead (or any form of lead, like galena or litharge, crushed and used in a salve) gets absorbed through the skin so it could get into the bloodstream. My thanks for your time and effort.‍ 

ANSWER: 13 Dec 2007

Dear Madam,

The questions you pose are very interesting and I am really glad to know that you are doing this research. I presume that you have read a key critical book on the subject: "Rome's Ruin By Lead Poison" by Gilfillan, S Colum, PhD, Wenzel Press, PO Box 14789, Long Beach, California USA 90803. Copyright 1990 by Barbara Crowley. All rights reserved. Dr Gilfillan died a short while after completing the book in 1987 so the book was published posthumously.

The book is out of print and now probably a RARE BOOK but Barbara Crowley kindly donated some copies to our Charity, The LEAD Group (all we had to pay was the postage from the US to Australia) for sale to special people who might need a copy - like YOU! Please let me know if you want to buy one. The last one we purchased in 2002 cost AU$50 so we would charge AU$50 plus postage from Australia to the Netherlands.

Among other things, the book makes the point that there were plenty of lead sources in addition to white lead face paint in Roman Times and one of the most important sources was grapa or grape syrup, made by boiling down or concentrating grape juice in lead cauldrons, and then added to wine to preserve it. Dr Gilfillan wrote on pages 2 to 3 of his book:

" The most significant sources of lead were vintage wines, grape syrup, cooked fruits, vinegar, lead-glazed art pottery, the water supply from lead conduits, roofs and tanks, and from lead in cosmetics, writing materials, toys and wall paint."

But you probably knew all that!

So, to answer your question - you like many other people seem to have confused the use of the term inorganic in relation to chemistry, with something that is not organic or not natural. Inorganic in the world of chemistry simply means not based on carbon and hydrogen ie not "organic". The alkyl lead added to petrol since the early 1920s is an organic compound (man-made and containing carbon and hydrogen) and can be absorbed via the skin - but so too can inorganic lead compounds such as the lead compound in white lead.

Please find below some information I've written previously which includes references on skin absorption of lead.

"Lead is absorbed through the skin  (Bress and Bidanset 1991) although skin-absorbed lead may remain undetected if only blood lead measurements are used to assess exposure (Stauber et al. 1994).

"The most common route of occupational exposure to lead is inhalation of lead fumes or lead-laden dusts in air and absorption of lead through the respiratory system. Lead also may be ingested and absorbed via the gastrointestinal tract and significant amounts of inorganic lead compounds can be absorbed via the skin (Sun et al. 2002) especially if the skin is sweaty (Lilley et al. 1988)."


I have proposed that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the USA, fund further research into this issue especially since the health impacts of skin-absorbed lead are virtually unknown.

I hope this helps and please stay in touch so we can track the progress of your thesis (and possibly web-publish it for you if you want and you give permission!).

All the best Yours Sincerely
Elizabeth O'Brien

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