Lead between the lines


Apologies for posting this a little late (again)… In the ‘in your element’ piece from our October issue, Somobrata Acharya from the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science, Kolkata, recounts the role of lead throughout history. Element 82 has been known for thousands of years, and widely used owing to the fact that it is abundant, easy to extract, malleable and therefore easy to manipulate.



Lead was known to the ancient Greeks, somewhat confusingly under the name molybdos; it does make sense though, as they didn’t distinguish lead ores and molybdenum ones. In a similar manner, lead and tin were called plumbum nigrum (black lead) and plumbum candidum or album (bright lead), respectively, until the 16th century. Lead also appears in the Old Testament — I found these two incidences on the Elementymology & Elements Multidict website:

“Thou didst blow with thy wind, the sea covered them: they sank as lead in the mighty waters.” (Exodus 15, 10).

“Only the gold, and the silver, the brass, the iron, the tin, and the lead, Every thing that may abide the fire, ye shall make it go through the fire, and it shall be clean” (Numbers 31, 22-23).

This heavy metal was widespread in the Roman Empire, from water pipes to jewellery to sweetener production (in which lead acetate, also known as ‘lead sugar’ was used). It is toxic to humans though, damaging the nervous system and interfering with various organs and tissues. Lead poisoning can occur through either acute or chronic exposure — the latter being the most common one. It is very interesting that ancient Romans, Greeks and Chinese had noticed lead was toxic, yet it wasn’t until the 20th century that its use became strictly regulated, and leaded petrol and paint banned from sale.

The article also recounts some great discoveries involving this pervasive element — read for example in what way lead participated to the development of the radio, infrared technology, and understanding the quantum confinement effect.

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