The Loh Down On Science

Leaded Empire

A Roman public fountain. The letters SPQR stand for "Senatus Populus Que Romanus" ("The senate and the Roman people").

Was the fall of Rome due to ... bad plumbing?

This is Sandra Tsing Loh with the Loh Down on Science.

The Romans dominated the Mediterranean and beyond for more than 500 years.  Despite their collapse, they left an amazing legacy:  roads and bridges that are still in use, beautiful multistory aqueducts.  But for all that engineering know-how, they still used lead pipes.

Could lead poisoning be the smoking gun?  Geoarcheologist Hugo Delile and colleagues decided to check.  They collected sediment from different areas where tap water from Rome's pipes would have dumped out.  By analyzing the chemical signatures from different eras, they mapped the progression of lead contamination in the region.

Turns out, at the height of the empire, the lead content in Rome’s tap water was one hundred times higher than the levels in nearby springs!

So could the health problems associated with lead poisoning have caused Rome’s downfall?  Probably not.  Though lead levels were high by modern standards, the researchers doubt they could have brought about the empire’s collapse.

Maybe we should give that barbarian horde another look.

***** For more 90-SECOND SCIENCE FACTS, click here.*****

The Loh Down on Science is produced by LDOS Media Lab, in partnership with the University of California, Irvine, and 89.3 KPCC. And made possible by the generous support of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.


blog comments powered by Disqus