“Of the many painters I have known, almost all I found unhealthy … If we search for the cause of the cachectic and colorless appearance of the painters, as well as the melancholy feelings that they are so often victims of, we should look no further than the harmful nature of the pigments…”

Italian physician Bernardinus Ramazzini in De Morbis Artificum Diatriba

Humans have had  love-hate relationship with lead. Easy to find and convert from an ore to a malleable metal, lead was in cosmetics, eating utensils, and used to create the pipes that move water from the Alps to Rome. The Romans were not universally impressed. Per Vitruvius:

“Water conducted through earthen pipes is more wholesome than that through lead; indeed that conveyed in lead must be injurious, because from it white lead [ceruse or lead carbonate, PbCO3] is obtained, and this is said to be injurious to the human system. Hence, if what is generated from it is pernicious, there can be no doubt that itself cannot be a wholesome body. “

We now know that lead poisoning, or plumbism, is a very real problem (image from Wikipedia).


For those of us who live in older houses, lead is a constant concern. Our pipes are made of lead, there is lead in our paint, there is lead on the dirt from leaded gasoline. My children were at continuous risk from lead growing up. From the CDC:

Lead-based paint and lead contaminated dust are the most hazardous sources of lead for U.S. children. Lead-based paints were banned for use in housing in 1978. All houses built before 1978 are likely to contain some lead-based paint. However, it is the deterioration of this paint that causes a problem. Approximately 24 million housing units have deteriorated leaded paint and elevated levels of lead-contaminated house dust. More than 4 million of these dwellings are homes to one or more young children.

What those of us who live in old houses and old cities know is that lead much less of a problem if you leave it alone. As long as  the paint is not peeling, the kids won’t eat it. As long as the dirt is not disturbed, the kids (who always eat dirt) will only eat lead free dirt. As long as the pipes are not disturbed, the water will be lead free. Those of us that live in older cities rely on the water board to do the right thing and not create a problem where none exists. And it turns out there is a lot they need to take into consideration.

Flint Michigan is an old city full of old houses. The older houses were mostly lived in by poor people, who unfortunately were living in a town with an infrastructure built for many, many more people than are currently living there, making the infrastructure very expensive. The people, unable to pay for existing services, were taken over by the state. The state, in a story worth reading, elected to go with cheaper drinking water from the Flint River. The cheaper drinking water, in a predictable chemical reaction, leached the lead out of the pipes and put it into people’s drinking water.

What are the lessons to learn? First, our public infrastructure is aging and that will affect people’s health. Clean water and sanitary sewer systems were a game changer in the 1880s but that was 100 years ago. We need to pay attention. Second, poor people are disproportionately affected by our failing infrastructure. They are more likely to live in poor cities and more likely to live in older neighborhoods. Third, listen to the patient/constituent. The state of Michigan looks especially bad because they tried to substitute toxic waste  for water and when people caught on they tried to cover it up.

Hopefully, Flint will overcome this though it may not be financially feasible to rebuild the water delivery system. I only hope leaders in other towns with aging infrastructures (such as Mobile) heed the warning.