Lead has been contaminating drinking water since the inception of modern plumbing.

The reason: its inexpensive, stable and malleable; the problem is it’s also poisonous.

Lead in Ancient Rome

Lead poisoning was a common fate for many ancient Romans and is often contemplated as a cause for the fall of the empire. After the determination of the negative impacts of lead on human health, lead mining and smelting was prohibited in Italy.

Lead in Modern America

America didn’t learn the lesson of health impacts of lead. Instead, we began using lead pipes for transporting drinking water was re-determined as a source of lead poisoning in the late 1800s. In a history of lead plumbing in the American Journal of Public Health, Richard Rabin, MSPH, an expert in occupational and environmental health, said that by 1900, more than 70 percent of cities with 30,000 or more residents were using lead-based products for transporting water.

The problems with lead were first noted in major cities, including New York and Boston, where indoor plumbing and lead service lines contributed to increasingly frequent incidents of lead poisoning. The earliest health concerns were raised in 1859, but no concerted effort to ban or limit lead plumbing was made until the 1920s.

Lobbying for Lead

To counteract this lead ban effort, a powerful trade lobby, The Lead Industries Association, formed in 1928 and made certain that lead-based plumbing and products would be used despite mounting scientific evidence about the associated health hazards. The lobbying group remained active through the 1970s, monitoring changes to building codes and publishing educational materials to support the continued use of lead pipes.


As with many areas of the economy, lobbyists have put harmful industries and their own financial gains in front of public health. It’s time to realize that using lead in our drinking water distribution systems and pretending that it doesn’t impact our health has failed before and will inevitably fail again.


“Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it”

-George Santayana

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