Historical documentation of lead toxicity prior to the 20th century in English literature

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Abstract

Lead is a heavy metal that remains a persistent environmental toxin. Although there have been a substantial number of reviews published on the health effects of lead, these reviews have predominantly focused on recent publications and rarely look at older, more historical articles. Old documents on lead can provide useful insight in establishing the historical context of lead usage and its modes of toxicity. The objective of this review is to explore historical understandings and uses of lead prior to the 20th century. One hundred eighty-eight English language articles that were published before the year 1900 were included in this review. Major themes in historical documentation of lead toxicology include lead’s use in medical treatments, symptoms of lead poisoning, treatments for lead poisoning, occupational lead poisonings, and lead contamination in food and drinking water. The results of this review indicate that lead’s usage was widespread throughout the 19th century, and its toxic properties were well-known. Common symptoms of lead poisoning and suggested treatments were identified during this time period. This review provides important insight into the knowledge and uses of lead before the 20th century and can serve as a resource for researchers looking at the history of lead.

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