Lead poisoning in a historical perspective



Lead poisoning existed and was already known in Antiquity but was forgotten, at least in the literature, until the end of the Middle Ages, where it was mentioned sporadically. In the 19th century this disease, which reached epidemic dimensions during the period of industrialization, was “rediscovered.” Several comprehensive clinical articles appeared in the literature. The clinical picture deepened during the beginning of the 20th century, and preventive efforts were started. However, the concept of poisoning remained strictly clinical. During the latter half of the 20th century a new concept emerged: subclinical and early forms became recognized as undesirable effects. This led to a substantial lowering of hygienic standards. Pediatric poisoning has also been a serious problem during the 20th century. After the 1920s, environmental pollution by lead caused by the introduction of tetraethyl lead in gasoline became an alarming public health problem. The use became restricted in the 1980s; its effects on blood lead levels are now evident. Today's research focuses on the effects of low exposure, often with the aim of defining noneffect levels for different types of effects. Am. J. Ind. Med. 38:244–254, 2000. © 2000 Wiley-Liss, Inc.