Lead poisoning: A history of lead in pipes, makeup, cups, wine, paint, and gasoline.

The Most Beautiful, Practical, and Poisonous Uses of Lead

The Most Beautiful, Practical, and Poisonous Uses of Lead

The state of the universe.
Aug. 21 2015 11:35 AM

Treacherous Element

The most beautiful, practical, and poisonous uses of lead in history.

Beauty, a painting of a geisha, by Japanese artist Gion Seitoku,
Beauty, a painting of a geisha, by Japanese artist Gion Seitoku, early 19th century.

Painting by Gion Seitoku/Image courtesy Brooklyn Museum

In a criminal lineup of the world’s metals, lead would be the dull, inoffensive-looking suspect. Next to the quicksilver fluidity of mercury, it is gray, solid, and dense. Judged against rigid iron, it melts and bends easily. Compared with the homicidal efficiency of white arsenic, it takes spoonfuls of black lead powder to off a victim—who would definitely notice the sweet taste.

So why is humble lead even a criminal suspect, especially when it’s done everything we’ve asked? For the past 6,000 years, lead has been vital to civilization—from lead pipes that brought clean water to thousands in Rome to lead batteries that power millions of cars. In 2014 alone, we used 11.3 million tons worldwide—about 3.4 pounds for each person on the planet.

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To better understand our fraught relationship with this useful but poisonous element, we look back at 15 intriguing, surprising, and even horrifying moments from our long history with lead.