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New Study Reveals How Metal Pollution Ends up in Our Bones
Excavation in 1992 of a burial ground under the floor of the oldest church at the Palazzo della Cancelleria in the center of Rome. (Alfredo Coppa/Sapienza University of Rome)

New Study Reveals How Metal Pollution Ends up in Our Bones

Joint Israeli-European research finds traces of lead in 12,000-year-old Roman bones, which could have far-reaching implications for modern technology and manufacturing

Whether in the air around us – or in our laptops and mobile devices – the industrial production and use of toxic metals end up inside our bones, a new study shows.

A research team from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the University of Vienna and Sapienza University of Rome found a connection between the rates of metal production and toxic lead exposure in humans. The findings were recently published in the peer-reviewed Environmental Science & Technology journal.

As part of the study, researchers closely examined the human remains of 130 people found in a burial ground in central Italy that was in continuous use for several millennia. Some of the bones they analyzed date back as far as 12,000 years.

The researchers discovered that as the global production of lead began and increased, so too did the rates of lead absorption in people who lived during those periods. Even those that were not involved in the production of lead absorbed it – simply by breathing in the air around them.

According to Professor Yigal Erel at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Institute of Earth Sciences, who led the study, the findings have far-reaching implications for today’s increasingly industrialized world.

“If this has happened throughout history and pre-history, there is no reason that it will not happen today and in the future, since our industry and our world is [producing] higher quantities of lead and other metals needed for electronic devices and for solar panels,” Erel told The Media Line.

Professor Yigal Erel of Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Institute of Earth Sciences. (Courtesy)

The ancient Romans used lead for their plumbing (hence the name, which comes from the Latin word “plumbus,” which means lead) and for vessels to store their food and drink. Since the 1940s, scientists have known that lead can affect a population’s neurological development, cause behavioral issues and lower intelligence levels, as well as cause anemia, and kidney and brain damage. Some historians have argued that widespread lead poisoning eventually hastened the fall of the Roman Empire, though that hypothesis has been disputed.

“There is a close relationship between how much lead people produced, and how much lead their bodies absorbed,” Erel explained, noting that other toxic metals would also likely end up in our bones.

He also urged stricter regulations be implemented in the manufacturing of electronic devices, solar panels and batteries.

“The prime producer of lead today is China and I don’t know how careful they are about monitoring their workers,” he said. “Other metals such as cobalt are being produced in Africa and there the situation is worse.”

However, metal pollution does not only affect miners or those directly involved in manufacturing. As laptops, cell phones and other electronic devices degrade over time, harmful metals can leech into the environment unless they are properly disposed of or recycled. Solar panels also can include hazardous metals such as arsenic and cadmium.

There is a close relationship between how much lead people produced, and how much lead their bodies absorbed

Manufacturers must be obliged to ensure that there are sustainable ways for the public to dispose of their products, Erel said.

“We must move our energy sector to renewable sources and abandon fossil fuels, but we have to do it properly and correctly,” he said. “Otherwise, we’ll cause other types of damage and then 50 years from now we’ll have lead toxicity or other metal toxicity in children or adults.”

In the future, researchers also hope to look into how lead pollution affects epigenetic indicators. Epigenetics is the study of how behaviors and environmental factors can cause changes to gene activity and expression.

“You can think of epigenetic modifications as chemical modifications that modify the way that DNA works or is used by the body,” Professor Liran Carmel, an expert in genetics at Hebrew University, who also took part in the study, told The Media Line.

“Unlike genetics, which changes very slowly over time, epigenetics responds to environmental cues and changes,” he explained. “We are striving toward this goal but we need more funding and it will take more time.”

 

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