Not Saussure

November 9, 2006

Latin is a dead language, because of lead

Filed under: environment, Medicine — notsaussure @ 7:15 pm

As dead as dead can be.

First it killed the Romans,

And now it’s killing me!

As we used to sing at school. Now we know better; the culprit was apparently plumbum, or lead in the vulgar tongue.

Somewhat confusing, not to say confused, article in the Guardian today by Sarah Boseley about study in The Lancet by Dr Philippe Grandjean, from the University of Southern Denmark, and Philip Landrigan, from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York which warn of the potential dangers posed by environmental pollution. The study’s subscription only, so I’ll have to rely on the Guardian’s summary:

The point that Grandjean and his co-author Philip Landrigan, from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, want to make is that we know very little about the damage we could be doing to our babies’ brains when we expose ourselves and them to modern cleaning fluids, cosmetics, pesticides, glues, plastics and other modern necessities made with potentially hazardous chemicals.

And they believe that there may be already evidence of what these chemicals are doing to us. Neurodevelopmental disorders, for example, appear to be rising, they say, although they acknowledge this is controversial. Many doctors argue that we are simply better at diagnosing them. But certainly more cases of autism are being detected than before. And it is the same with attention deficit disorder, Grandjean and his colleague add. Cerebral palsy is now common.

Are chemicals really causing these things? “I think so, but we don’t know,” says Grandjean. “In this whole group of disorders … the National Academy of Sciences says 3% can be explained by known chemicals, 25% is probably environmental exposures of some kind and probably a genetic predisposition. Of the rest, a lot are unknown and some are inherited.


In this week’s paper, Grandjean and Landrigan have pulled together a list of 200 chemicals in everyday use for which there is evidence of neurotoxicity although the case would not yet stand up in court. They argue that we should not wait for the final proof. It might take 20 years or 50 years to work out what the long-term consequences of exposure to some of these chemicals will be. We should act now, they argue, and put in strict controls for their use to protect babies. If it turns out that the chemicals are harmless after all, then the controls can be lifted, they say. Better safe than sorry.

This application of the precautionary principle is not without its critics; the Guardian quotes

Alan Boobis, a professor in experimental medicine and toxicology at Imperial College London, [who] thinks that some of the evidence lacked rigour. “This is a risk-management issue. In implementing the precautionary principle it is important to take into account all relevant information and not just the potential harm that might result from inaction. For example, what would the consequence (health, economic, societal) be if some of the compounds on the list were banned or severely restricted on the basis of the precautionary principle?”

and yesterday’s Telegraph went even further:

Prof Nigel Brown, the head of medicine and biomedical sciences at the University of London, said that the report verged on scaremongering.

“It is possible that there is a problem,” he said.

“We should be aware of this and we should study the problem, but there is currently not a shred of evidence of a pandemic.”

I’m obviously not qualified to comment on all this, but I was struck by the way lead pollution runs through the Guardian’s article like a theme, partly because it’s a well-known toxin, I suppose, and partly because it provides a useful analogy — even small amounts of lead in the environment have a deleterious effect on children (of which more in a moment) so, by analogy, might not all these other substances so do? I have to say that argument by analogy doesn’t really convince me in matters scientific; people used to think, after all, that malaria was caused by breathing noxious substances in from the atmosphere (hence its name) until they knew better, so, by analogy, might not Profs Grandjean and Landrigan also be similarly mistaken?

I’m not suggesting they are; just that the argument from analogy doesn’t seem to help us much here.

What really surprised me, though, was the Guardian’s announcement that

Lead has been squarely blamed, in some scientific quarters, for the decline of the Roman Empire. Lead was the fabric of the cooking pots, the wine urns, the water pipes, and the plates in Roman times; it was used in makeup; it was even used for its sweet flavouring. It contaminated the food and drink and befuddled the brains of the wealthy ruling classes, the people who could most easily afford classy metalware and were therefore most exposed. Why was Caligula degenerate? Why was Julius Caesar apparently sub-fertile for all his sexual proclivity? (He had only one child.) Because of lead, the theory goes.

I’ve heard this one, as well, and it’s a corker, at least in the way the Guardian uses it. The decline and fall of the Roman Empire has, of course, notoriously been blamed on a lot of things — famously Christianity, by Edward Gibbon — and a moment’s thought should have told Sarah Boseley that it was because of a lot of factors, including political instability, foreign invasion and economic problems.

To point to a single cause is bad enough, but to point to something that could, at most, only have been a secondary cause — all that lead in the environment so damaged people’s judgment that they took rash and ill-considered decisions that contributed to political instability and so on — is utterly preposterous. It’s like saying environmental pollution is responsible for the current debacle in Iraq, since if the American people weren’t so befuddled by environmental toxins they’d never have elected George W Bush.

Preposterous, too, is dragging in Julius Caesar (100 BC to 44 BC) and Gaius Caligula (12 AD to 41 AD) as evidence for the decline of an entity that reached its maximum extension in 117 AD under Trajan and didn’t really run into serious problems until the Crisis of the Third Century. From this, of course, it recovered under Diocletian and lasted for another 100 years in the west (longer in the east). Ah, but if hadn’t been for the lead….

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  1. I saw that article too – it was a bit of a WTF moment when one read the ridiculous claim…

    But as for it being merely arguement by analogy, that’s a bit unfair. The point wasn’t that because lead has harmful effects, the chemicals we use may do too. It was that the Romans’ widespread use of a material whose properties they did not fully understand was a mistake, and so might ours be.

    This isn’t arguement by ananlogy so much as attempting to draw useful lessons from past behaviour.
    Just as the South Sea Bubble, ultimately caused by investors who didn’t understand how stockmarkets worked, might teach us to be wary of hedge funds, for example: not because the lack of a sound financial base of the SSC means hedge funds lack one, but because investing in something whose workings you don’t understand is a bad idea.

    I’m not a philosopher, but i guess this is more induction than analogy.

    Your blog is bonza by the way – def one of the most worth reading I’ve come across.

    Comment by alabastercodify — November 9, 2006 @ 11:32 pm

  2. Thank you for the kind words; glad you enjoy reading it.

    I don’t quite follow your point, I’m afraid. The Romans presumably did think they sufficiently understood the properties of lead — it’s just that they got it wrong. Though, of course, you could argue that if it hadn’t been for Roman plumbing, their cities wouldn’t have done too well and maybe lead was the lesser of the two evils.

    A propos this particular study, Alan Boobis seems to have got it right — you can’t just go around banning things because they might potentially cause a problem without also considering the costs and drawbacks of not using them.

    Comment by notsaussure — November 10, 2006 @ 12:21 am

  3. I doubt the Romans would have understood the concept of “properties” in the same way we do – they would neither have looked for effects in the same way, nor have been able to analyse them if they had. We however know a lot about the effects it is possible for chemicals to have – hormone disruption, neurological, nerve destroying etc. But we simply have not subjected many of these chemicals to sufficient testing.

    Comment by alabastercodify — November 10, 2006 @ 12:37 pm

  4. Quite so, but I’m not sure where that gets us. The best we can ever say is, ‘As far as we know, this substance doesn’t cause any harm when used in this way; however, we can see there’s a possibility it might and further research is clearly needed’.

    You’re then faced with the question of what you do while the further research is being conducted. That’s a question of judgement; you can’t just say — as people so often tend to — ‘such and such might potentially turn out to be harmful, though as far as we know at the moment it isn’t, so we’d better ban it on spec while we try to find out’ without also taking account of the real and known social and economic costs of banning it.

    Comment by notsaussure — November 10, 2006 @ 1:04 pm

  5. You’re right, but I think one can clarify the issue by thinking of 2 seperate questions.

    The first is that it is clearly impossible to simply ban all the chemicals in widespread use until they can all be tested. (That doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t, while still in use, be tested, and be banned if they eventually fail. Nor that one shouldn’t raise the possible dangers, arising from the precautionary principle. Nor that one shouldn’t take precautions, eg keeping money plants in rooms to soak up formaldehyde from furniture, using natural paints and cleaners, avoinding synthetic carpet material etc – not to sound too swively-eyed of course…)

    But the second is those chemicals in development. Industry creates new compounds far faster than they can be tested. Here surely the precautionary principle should come into play. Induction from various examples, not just lead but DDT, tributyltin compounds, and the example of sheep dip teaches us that allowing new chemicals and compounds to come into wide use before we know their effects will lead to some causing harm. Then there is the fact that many, once banned at a later date, remain in the environment. And the fact that by the time they have become widely used, too many people have an interest in denying they are harmful, including the government agencies which certified them and would face high liabilities for subsequent withdrawl – as in the case of Georgina Downs.
    We may not want simply to prevent new compounds being used until they have been tested rigourously, maybe over a decade or more – this would make most development unviable. But we may at least want to increase the rigour of tests. We would still conduct the cost benefit analysis you suggest; but the answer would be different for a chemical not yet in commercial use.

    What one doesn’t want is a situation where we decry the precautionary principle because it may be unfeasible for those chemicals we already use; then, having ousted it, bring many more uncertain chemicals into use; then again prevent those from being properly questioned because they are now widely used…

    Comment by alabastercodify — November 10, 2006 @ 2:52 pm

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