The title of this article is a bit of a play on words. You see, Lead, the element, has had a defining role in the area of plumbing and the wordplay with lead, ie to guide some one in a particular direction combined with this misappropriation of the quote ‘you can lead a horse to water’.
History of Lead “Latin origin Plumbum meaning lead”
We can continue the word play with some defining terms for plumbing. The word plumbing comes from the Latin origin Plumbum meaning lead, in fact the element of Lead has the chemical annotation of Pb. So the true definition of a Plumber is an artisan who works with lead. Lead has long been used by early civilizations for a large variety of functions. This malleable metal has been used for plates, bowls cups and spoons for early roman civilization. The use of lead in the Roman Empire is now legendary, with the effects of lead poisoning being well documented now in medical science.
Although it was not until the 20th century that humanity discovered that no amount of lead ingestion was safe, there have been scholars through out the age that have warned humanity about the deleterious effects that lead has on the human system. Two early scholars of note have delivered early warnings about the poisonous effects of lead for humankind.
The earliest warning was penned by Pedanius Dioscorides an early Greek physician and author of one of the worlds most influential medical books, De Materia Medica. He warns of the debilitating effects of lead poisoning in his pharmacopeia and advises against ingestion of the substance under any circumstances.
Vitruvius, another influential scholar, this time from ancient Rome warned the emperor about the poisonous effects of Lead, noting that water was much more wholesome when delivered through earthen wear pipes and that water seemed to be made injurious by exposure to lead.
By this time in history, the 1st century AD, lead had been mined and used by humans for around 6,500 years, and the first mines for lead were thought to be located in Anatolia, or what is now the Asian portion of Turkey.
There is a modern theory that the downfall of Rome was a direct result of widespread lead poisoning due to lead based pipes that serviced the nobles of the Roman Empire. This is a convenient theory but has been widely disputed based on the following evidence. First of all the lead pipes quickly built up a thick layer of deposited Calcium Carbonate that would have insulated the water from any contact or contamination from the lead. The second was that there were very few taps in the Roman Empire and the water volume through the many leaden aqueducts of the Roman Empire was such that the water would have been in contact with the lead for a very short period of time.
That lead poisoning was a persistent ailment in Roman culture is not in question, the term Saturnism was developed to describe lead poisoning, and lead acetate was used in a wide variety of applications including as a sweetener for wine and food. But can we ascribe the downfall of the Roman Empire to plumbing with lead piping? No probably not.
For further reading on the subject follow this link: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/~grout/encyclopaedia_romana/wine/leadpoisoning.html