‘If it’s in the air, and iPhones, it’ll end up in our bones’, researchers warn
Scientists have warned the increasing industrialisation of our world can have a direct impact on what is occurring inside our bodies, even if we don’t think we are being directly exposed to pollutants.
A new study by researchers at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem has revealed how toxic lead exposure in human bones carefully tracks lead production over thousands of years.
Through examining human remains from a burial ground in central Italy which has been in use for 12,000 years, the scientists found that as worldwide lead production began and increased, so too did the rate of lead absorption in people living at the time – even in those “not remotely involved in lead production”, but who were simply breathing the air around them.
The research team said their study into the toxic effects of metal pollution has far-reaching implications for public health given the forecasted increase in production of lead and other metals to keep up with manufacturing demands for items including electronic devices, batteries, solar panels and wind turbines, among others.
While lead poisoning is closely associated today with old lead-based paints and lead water pipes, its production has its own rich history, beginning several millennia ago.
A big boost in lead production began 2,500 years ago with coin production, an uptick that reached its peak during the Roman Period before declining during the Middle Ages.
Around 1,000 years ago, lead production was on the rise again, prompted by silver mining in Germany, then in the New World, and finally to meet the demands of the industrial revolution.
The researchers said that while increases in lead production rates are well documented in environmental archives, such as glaciers and sediments from lakes, lead concentrations in human bones and teeth have not previously been used to inform the narrative around humans’ relationship with lead, until now.
The scientists analysed bone fragments from 130 people who lived in Rome, from as early as 12,000 years ago – well before the advent of metal production – until the 17th century. By analysing the elemental composition found in their bones, the researchers were able to track the level of lead pollution over time, and showed that it closely followed the rate of worldwide lead production.
Professor Yigal Erel, the lead author of the research said: “This documentation of lead pollution throughout human history indicates that, remarkably, much of the estimated dynamics in lead production is replicated in human exposure.
“Thus, lead pollution in humans has closely followed their rates of lead production.”
He added: “Simply put, the more lead we produce, the more people are likely to be absorbing it into their bodies. This has a highly toxic effect.”
The research team warned that increasing rates of industrialisation risked exposing future generations to the impacts of lead.
“Studies have shown that toxic lead exposure in people, especially in children, takes place through diet, air-pollution and urban soil resuspension (in which particulate deposits from the ground are transferred into the atmosphere as a result of wind, construction, and other activities.
They also noted the “ever-mounting demand for metals in the manufacturing of electronic devices”.
Professor Erel said: “The close relationship between lead production rates and lead concentrations in humans in the past, suggests that without proper regulation we will continue to experience the damaging health impacts of toxic metals contamination.”
While those most directly affected by these dangers are people with the highest exposure to lead, such as miners and employees in recycling facilities, lead can be found throughout our daily lives in the form of batteries and the new generation of solar panels that deteriorate over time and release their toxicity into the air we breathe and the soil from which we grow our crops.
“Any expanded use of metals should go hand in hand with industrial hygiene, ideally safe metal recycling and increased environmental and toxicological consideration in the selection of metals for industrial use,” Professor Erel said.
The research is published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.