Vitruvius on lead pipes

I recently received a copy of Vitruvius’s On Architecture. This is a guide for professional engineers written in about BCE10. Vitruvius worked for Julius Caeser and was granted a pension by Augustus.

The first impression is of a modern attitude towards engineering. Whilst some of the conclusions are not in alignment with modern thinking the overall impression is that you could take this book, follow the instructions and the results would be satisfactory. The theory as to why you should do certain things is dubious, but the conclusions seem sound.

I’ve only browsed the book so far, but my biggest surprise is that he says lead pipes are poisonous:

Besides, water from terracotta pipes is much more healthy than that taken through lead pipes, which seems to be particularly damaging seeing that white lead, said to be harmful to the human organism, derives from lead.

So it is obvious that water should never be conducted in lead pipes if we want it to be beneficial to our health.

This was over 2000 years ago. I’d always thought that lead being toxic was a modern discovery. I grew up with:

  • Leaded petrol
  • Lead in paint
  • Lead water pipes (lots still around and in use)

So I am boggled that lead was known to be a problem over 2000 years ago!

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