A Dangerous Metal
by Henry Felgenhauer, Form VI
3 min. read — November 16, 2022
Lead has been used for thousands of years across the world due to its malleability and low melting point and is one of the most widely implemented metals. The Romans first used lead in 300 BC for their pipes and weapons. Because it is easy to shape, they were able to carry water in easily manufactured pipes, allowing for their impressive aqueduct systems. Later on, people used it as a writing utensil because it left a steady mark when dragged on paper. Finally, in the 1940s, Clair Patterson discovered the chemical structure of lead, which led to its use as a metal in the private sector. Then, Thomas Midgely Jr. discovered its usability as a hydrofluorocarbon in gasoline to make the combustion of the fuel less violently explosive and more stable. Originally because of the violent explosions, the fuel would destroy car engines over time, causing them to rattle, but the creation of leaded gasoline stopped that, increasing both the lifespan and performance of car engines. Just as the properties of lead made it useful for gasoline, they also made it useful in pipes and paint, leading lead to proliferate into paints and pipes across America.
While lead is an amazing complement to some goods, it does have bad side effects on the health of people who ingest or breathe it in. Lead poisoning leads to delays in development, learning difficulties, reduced fertility, stillbirths, and much more. All of these side effects can be caused by more than 50 micrograms of lead per liter in the blood. Also, lead doesn’t leave the body with great ease, as the body has no way of disposing of it. This means that, over a couple of years, minute amounts of lead can manifest many of the aforementioned side effects. One way lead causes some of these side effects is by degrading the myelin sheath on neurons, which insulates nerve signals. Once this layer is gone, it is similar to removing rubber wire coverings from a mess of wires tangled together; the electrical signals intersect with each other, resulting in nonsense. This results in confusing signals coming from the brain; developmental issues and learning disabilities, as well as nerve damage in general, follow after.
The worst part about all of this is that society, in general, has consumed lead for millennia without knowledge of it, yet now we know its horrible side effects. Unfortunately, lead is already deeply ingrained in our infrastructure, such as in some of the water pipes throughout Washington, D.C. The lead in the pipes is thankfully not an immediate danger at the moment because D.C. city water has a decent amount of chemicals in it, making it “hard” water which is unable to absorb lead, in contrast to “soft” water that has little to no chemicals and easily absorbs metals such as lead. There is still hope, though. In 1996, leaded gasoline was taken off the market and replaced with a better alternative, which showed that these scenarios can be fixed. If you live in Washington D.C., you can see if your house has lead piping on this site: https://geo.dcwater.com/Lead/.