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Before It Was Dangerous, Lead Was The Miracle Metal That We Loved

Apr 6, 2016
Originally published on April 12, 2016 1:46 pm

Residents of Flint, Mich., may tell you lead is a serious menace, but for most of the last 5,000 years, people saw lead as a miracle metal at the forefront of technology.

"You can think about lead as kind of the plastic of the ancient world," says Joseph Heppert, a professor of chemistry at the University of Kansas. He says it was because lead is easy to melt — a campfire alone can do it. Unlike iron, lead is malleable.

"Once you form it into sheets you can do things that people had really never been able to do before with a metal," he says. "You can roll it into tubes, for example."

It started with the Romans, who plumbed their famous baths with lead water pipes and lined aqueducts with lead. They called lead plumbum, which was where the word "plumbing" came from. Romans added lead into things ranging from makeup and contraception to cookware.

Chris Warren, a professor of history at Brooklyn College, says Romans even sweetened their ­food with lead.

"Sugar of lead, as they call it, was used as a direct additive, but also used in winemaking to control fermentation," Warren says.

After the fall of Rome, alchemists and inventors found new uses for lead, like printing.

Johannes Gutenberg used movable lead type in his revolutionary machine. Three hundred years later, Benjamin Franklin was still using it to warn about lead-tainted liquor. By the Industrial Revolution, lead was a well-known killer. But it was just so handy.

The lead industry liked to call lead "the useful metal." It was adaptable to just about any commercial purpose, including mass-produced lead plumbing, lead alloys and beautiful leaded glass.

Heppert says it also did wonders for gasoline.

"Tetraethyl lead was kind of a miracle substance," Heppert says.

Then, there was lead paint. Americans came to grips with its toxicity to children in the late 1960s.

Regulators in the United States banned the use of leaded house paint in 1978 and phased out leaded gas by the mid-'90s.

Lead Still As Popular As Ever

But America — or the world — is not using any less lead. In fact, lead holds the power that starts just about every car, bus, motorbike and boat.

"About 90 percent of lead is today is used in lead batteries; about three-quarters of that is actually used in vehicles," says Andy Bush, managing director of the International Lead Association in London.

He says lead batteries also provide power to hospitals, cell towers and railroad crossing gates. Bush says that in the United States, 99 percent of lead batteries are recycled.

Lead is treated much more carefully these days compared with in the past. In the United States, lead is sequestered, a process strictly enforced in places like EnerSys, a lead battery plant in Warrensburg, Mo.

Inside the plant, the smell is bracing and acidic. A few of the workers wear respirators. In one section, yellow robots bend and twist, building batteries with freaky speed and precision.

"It's a technological ballet. Through this level of automation, we're providing a cleaner environment for our operators and again, providing a safer environment," says Steven Jones, plant manager at EnerSys.

EnerSys safety specialist Adam Bressler says the risk of acute lead poisoning here is under control.

"What keeps me awake? Nothin'. We have such good protocols in place there's not very much that I have to worry about at night," Bressler says.

American blood lead levels have plummeted more than 90 percent in recent decades. In the late '70s, almost 9 out of 10 American children were walking around with high lead levels. By 2008, it was closer to 1 in 100.

While lead still poses an insidious threat — especially to water supplies — its current uses are less likely to hurt people.

Copyright 2018 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The water crisis in Flint, Mich., got us wondering about lead. It turns out for much of recorded history, people saw it as a kind of a miracle metal. Despite the dangers, the world uses more lead today than ever before. Frank Morris of KCUR in Kansas City, Mo., reports.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: These days, in the U.S., at least, lead is sequestered, and that's strictly enforced by people like Steven Jones, who's standing in a small room just off the factory floor at the Enersys battery plant in Warrensburg, Mo.

STEVEN JONES: Basically we've just stepped into a transition room. This is the area that allows an individual to transfer from what we refer to as a clean area into a dirty area.

MORRIS: So this is kind of like a demilitarized zone between the world of where there's lead and where there's no lead.

Inside the plant, the smell is bracing, acidic. A few of the workers wear respirators. In one section, yellow robots bend and twist, building batteries with freaky speed and precision.

JONES: It's a technological ballet. Through this level of automation, we're providing a cleaner environment for our operators and, again, providing a safer environment.

MORRIS: For most of the last 5,000 years, though, people have been pretty cozy with lead.

JOSEPH HEPPERT: You can think about lead as kind of the plastic of the ancient world.

MORRIS: Joseph Heppert, a chemist at Kansas University, says lead is easy to melt. A campfire will do it. And unlike, say, iron, lead is malleable.

HEPPERT: Once you've formed it into sheets, you can do things that people had never really been able to do before with a metal. You could roll it into tubes, for example.

MORRIS: Pipes, that is. Romans plumbed their famous baths with lead water pipes and lined aqueducts with lead. They'd called lead plumbum. That's where the word plumbing comes from. Romans used lead for all kinds of other stuff, too - make up, contraception, cookware. Chris Warren, who teaches history at Brooklyn College, says Romans even sweetened their food with lead.

CHRIS WARREN: The sugar of lead, as they call it, was used as a direct additive but also used in winemaking to control fermentation.

MORRIS: After the fall of Rome, alchemists and inventors found new uses for lead, like printing.

WARREN: That would be Mr. Gutenberg.

MORRIS: Johannes Gutenberg used movable lead type in his revolutionary machine. Three-hundred years later, Ben Franklin was still using it to warn about lead-tainted liquor. By the Industrial Revolution, lead was a well-known killer, but it was just so handy.

WARREN: The lead industry liked to call lead the useful metal. It was adaptable to just about any commercial purpose.

MORRIS: Mass-produced lead plumbing, lead alloys, beautiful leaded glass. And Heppert says lead did wonders for gasoline.

HEPPERT: Tetraethyl lead was kind of a miracle substance.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Put a tiger in your tank. Happy motoring.

MORRIS: And then there was lead paint. Americans came to grips with its toxicity to children in the late 1960s and early '70s.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Over 400,000 of our children between age 1 and 6 suffer from lead paint poisoning according to the...

MORRIS: Regulators in the United States banned the use of leaded house paint in 1978. They phased out leaded gas by the mid-1990s. But Americans are not using any less lead. In fact, lead holds the power that starts just about every car, bus, motorbike and boat.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINE IGNITION)

ANDY BUSH: Around 90 of lead today is used in lead batteries. About three quarters of that is actually used in vehicles.

MORRIS: That's Andy Bush, who directs the International Lead Association in London. He says lead batteries also provide backup power to hospitals, cell towers and railroad crossing gates. We're not talking about flashlight batteries here. Bush claims that in the United States, 99 percent of lead batteries are recycled.

The battery plant workers race to keep up with demand, and Enersys safety specialist Adam Bressler says the risk of acute lead poisoning here is under control.

ADAM BRESSLER: What keeps me awake - nothing. We have such good protocol in place, there's not much that I have to worry about at night.

MORRIS: American blood lead levels have plummeted more than 90 percent in recent decades. In the late-70s, almost 9 out of 10 children were walking around with high lead levels. By 2008, it was closer to 1 in a hundred. So while lead still poses an insidious threat, especially to water supplies, its current uses are less likely to hurt people. For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.