Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Lead Poisoning and Political Instability

Anatomist Tamiji Nakashima and his team -- University of Occupational and Environmental Health, Kitakyushu -- has been studying the remains of 70 samurai men and their families at the castle at Kokura.

Taking samples of bones from the Edo period, 1603 to 1867, they looked for signs of lead poisoning.

What they found surprised them: kids with enough lead in their systems to cause severe intellectual impairment. Children under age 3 were the worst off, with a median level of 1,241 micrograms of lead per gram of dry bone. That's more than 120 times the level thought to cause neurological and behavioral problems today and as much as 50 times higher than levels the team found in samurai adults. Older kids' levels were lower, but still very high.

What's more, five of the children had unusual bone enlargements, and X-rays revealed banding that only turns up in children with at least 70 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood.

Because "Nakashima and colleagues showed in an earlier study that samurai and merchants living in Kokura had much higher lead levels in their bones than did farmers and fishermen living nearby", he and his team began to focus on what items might have been available to the noble classes, and not the common. One possible source they focused on was make-up. Upper class women at this time wore a heavy white mask that contained high levels of lead, and it's being suggested that fine particles of this powder may have been ingested by others.

It is now generally accepted that there is no safe level of Lead ingestion. Any quantity leads to a negative biological effect. And Lead has a particularly severe effect on children. Everything from growths that can be found on bones, to mental impairment.

The interesting twist on all this is that the team is hypothesizing that the political instability of the period is due to the effects of the poisonings.

Case Studies in Environmental Medicine (CSEM) : Lead Toxicity
What Are the Physiologic Effects of Lead Exposure?

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