Metal Utensils: Lead

Appears in

Oxford Companion to Food

Oxford Companion to Food

By Alan Davidson

Published 2014

  • About

A soft, heavy metal with a low melting point. It quickly forms a thick layer of white oxide, powdery and easily detached. All lead compounds are highly poisonous. Lead is a cumulative poison: the body mistakes it for calcium and uses it to make bone, so that large amounts build up. Poisoning causes colic and damage to the nervous system, as well as learning difficulties in children. The ancient Romans suffered severely from it, since their drinking water was carried in lead-lined aqueducts and stored in lead tanks; they had lead cooking vessels; and they ate defrutum, a sweetener made by boiling down figs in a lead pan, so that the fruit acids leached lead into the mixture. In the 1st century AD the Greek physician Aretaeus described the symptoms, and the Roman architect Vitruvius correctly attributed them to lead in water. Edward Gibbon suggested that chronic lead poisoning was (along with Christianity) one of the causes of the fall of the Roman Empire.