Air pollution didn’t start with Europe’s Industrial Revolution. Much older airborne lead pollution has been found in ice cores in Greenland and lakes and peat bogs in Scandinavia.
So fouling the air (and soil and water) is not just a modern problem, as R. Monastersky notes. Citing work by Ingemar Renberg and his team, Monastersky reports that spikes in lead pollution in Swedish lake sediments peaked when the ancient Greeks were coining silver, which was melted out of lead ore.
Lead was one of the first metals humans used. It was widespread, easy to smelt, and highly malleable. Some of the oldest evidence of its use dates to 6,400 years ago in Anatolia. Two thousand years ago, the Romans made their pipes out of it. This is echoed today in the word plumbing, which comes the Latin plumbum, meaning “the soft metal.”
Humans have put lead to use in cosmetics, batteries, paints, and ceramic glazes; it’s in alloys like pewter; it was made into type, solder, shot, and bullets; and, in the 20th century, it was added to gasoline. In short, it’s a wonder element, and yet unfortunately also poisonous.
Even small amounts can cause serious health problems, affecting mental and physical development, especially in young children. Evidence of lead poisoning has been found in skeletons of the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Chinese. Some have speculated that Rome’s own plumbing contributed to the fall of its empire.
Another, more recent paper by Renberg et al. details the longer history of atmospheric lead pollution and its fate in boreal forest soils. They chart a chronology of pre-industrial and industrial history over 4,000 years through the deposition of lead in Sweden.
The lead was transported by winds from Britain and continental Europe. The peaks of deposition include the late Middle Ages, the early part of the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution, and especially the period from 1945 to the 1970s. Since then, leaded gasoline has been phased out worldwide, and lead pollution has since returned to the levels of the medieval era.