The recent finding of high lead levels in Maine school water supplies is not unexpected.  As a graduate student in the 1970’s, I helped edit a book on lead poisoning.  A line I distinctly remember was, “Every other generation relives the unfortunate lessons of lead poisoning.”

Lead, mercury, arsenic, and cadmium are chemicals called heavy metals, all potent neurotoxins that affect brain development in children and nervous system functioning in all life forms.  Historically, heavy metals were used in early medicine to cure diseases and in early agriculture as insecticides.  These uses produced one of the truths of modern biology: “If it kills smaller life forms it won’t be good for you either.”  Likewise, the idea of “safe levels” is a myth since toxins bioaccumulate in the body with each additional exposure.  I.e., one exposure may be safe but constant exposure is not.

Historically, lead-lined aqueducts in ancient Rome are thought to have caused wide-spread lead poisoning among Roman citizens, the “mad hatter” of Alice in Wonderland is a reference to mercury poisoning from curing felt in the hat industry of medieval Europe, and arsenic, found in approximately 30% of drilled wells in Maine and New Hampshire, is the poison of choice in many murder mysteries.  In modern times, lead in water pipes is similar to the same issue of ancient Rome, while lead paint and leaded gasoline are known to cause serious child developmental and adult neurological defects in people overly exposed.  Similarly, lead sinkers ingested by loons are the leading cause of loon mortality in Maine Lakes and eating ducks and game killed with “lead shot” can harm hunters and their families as well as scavengers that consume left carcasses.  Sadly, pregnant women in Maine and other states are advised to avoid eating both freshwater fish and venison due to contamination with mercury and lead respectively, obviously not what nature intended.

The point is that lead poisoning keeps rearing its ugly head every few generations.  Understandably, humans have about a two generation “memory” when it comes to social dangers, whether it be lead and mercury poisoning, the political dangers of autocratic rulers, or the public health measures needed to fight pandemics.  Unfortunately, this forgetting causes major harm to both individuals and countries.

Maybe what is needed is a “top 10” list of ongoing dangers that governments and parents pass from generation to generation?  In the meantime, we need to stay alert to environmental dangers such as dissolved lead in drinking water, lead paint in homes and apartments with young children, and leaded fishing and hunting products.  Perhaps “Get the Lead Out” bumper stickers for the public or NML (No More Lead) hats for fishermen and hunters?  Anything to help us remember the dangers of lead!

Ken Sawyer, Wilton, is a Retired science teacher and oceanographer with an educational background in environmental chemistry (M.S.) and science education (M. Ed.)

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