Dangers in the Water System
People may have been able to avoid lead in the home. But everyone had to drink water. The Romans used lead in their water system, its malleability making it perfect to shape pipes and line aqueducts (Vitruvius II.6.1). So was lead poisoning occurring through the water system- thereby affecting more people than the aristocracy? The only way to ascertain this was to investigate the Roman water system- most specifically the pipes that transported water around the city of Rome.
In 2014, a team from the University of Utah published their findings from one such investigation in a paper entitled “Lead in Ancient Rome’s city Waters.” The team measured lead isotopes in the sediment of the River Tiber and Trajanic Harbor, where the outflow from Romes’ water system drained. They found that the piped water probably contained 100 times as much lead as local spring water. However, despite the evidence of the deposit, it seems that people consuming the water were not that exposed to lead poisoning.
Frontinus in his treatise on the aqueducts of Rome complained how “the accumulation of deposit, which sometimes hardens into a crust, contracts the channel of the water” (CXXII.1). Modern examinations of Roman lead water pipes showed they were encrusted with a layer of calcium carbonate- which would have insulated the water against the lead. Over time, the concentrations of lead in the basin may have built up due to deposition- but, as Hugo Delile, a member of the Utah team admitted, the amount of lead people ingested with their water was “unlikely to have been truly harmful.” “Lead is no longer seen as the prime culprit of Rome’s demise” Delile admitted.
However, something else in the pipes could have been. In 2017, a team from the University of Southern Denmark was given a piece of Roman pipe to investigate from a private collection. Kaare Lund Rasmussen and his team analyzed a 40mg section taken from the House of Caecilius Jucundus in Pompeii in 1875. The Danish team discovered that the concentration of antimony in the pipe was 3680ug/g corresponding to 0.368wt% of the pipe’s weight. A ground control sample showed levels of 5.63ug/g- meaning the levels of antimony in just that short section of pipe were staggering.
“Their drinking water must have been hazardous,” Rasmussen, a member of the team and specialist in archaeological chemistry, said of the people of Pompeii. “This is the first time that you see that it is possible they died of antimony poisoning instead of lead poisoning.”