The myth of lead and the Roman Empire

One of the challenges with aging is keeping up with, and adapting to, change. Stuff you believed is true at one time can be falsified by additional experiments. That’s how science works, and how science is different from religious dogma. And thanks to the intertubes, checking for updates is fast and easy.

I posted here about the lead-crime hypothesis. It concerns the link between leaded gasoline and crime, and enjoys a lot of support from epidemiological data. It turns out to be a better explanation for the rise in crime than permissive liberal culture and decline in crime than broken windows policing and mass incarceration.

There are other sources of environmental lead besides leaded gas. Lead paint and lead in the water supply (plumbing) come to mind, but they don’t explain the timing of the rise and fall of violent crime the way that leaded gasoline does.

One of the old fables about lead is that it caused the fall of the Roman Empire. While it is true that the Romans used lead in plumbing (hence the etymology) and the evidence supports the hypothesis that lead in the Roman water was greatly elevated over natural levels, people who have studied this conclude that the levels of lead at the time were insufficient to explain the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.

“This work has shown that the labile fraction of sediments from Portus and the Tiber bedload attests to pervasive Pb contamination of river water by the Pb plumbing controlling water distribution in Rome. Lead pollution of “tap water” in Roman times is clearly measurable, but unlikely to have been truly harmful.”

Lead doesn’t explain the fall of the Roman Empire