by Roger Dewhurst

On Sunday there was a television program on the “terrible” effects of lead in the environment.  Let us put this in perspective; difficult for politicians maybe, but please try. 

The Romans, about 2000 years ago, constructed warm baths in the crater of the ancient volcano in which the British city of Bath is constructed.  They used a massive amount of lead.  I have seen it; I lived in Bath as a child in the early war years.  For the next 2000 years lead was the metal used for water pipes.  The men who installed them were and are called plumbers, the name coming from the latin name for lead, plumbum. 

When I was a child lead was still the metal from which the piping in existing houses was constructed.  Up to the age of eighteen I doubt that I drank any water that had not been conveyed in a lead pipe!  In the past century lead has been added to petrol in the form of tetraethyl lead to increase the octane rating.  This addition has ceased in the last few decades, but while tetraethyl lead was added to petrol, it all finished up in the near roadside environment, spewed from motor vehicle exhaust pipes. 

Over much the same time period, or longer, lead oxide has been added to paints.  I understand that this practice has now ceased.  Although lead is nearly insoluble in water in its common forms, there is generally some.  In soils it is widespread in tens of parts per million. In areas such as Mount Isa and Broken Hill there is much more in the soils. 

But lead in the soil is not a problem.  It is not taken up by plants to enter the food chain.  Plants are pretty selective about what they take up.  Paranoia and the ranting of ignorant politicians, among whom we might include Nick Smith of recent infamy, led to bans on the use of lead shot for shooting waterfowl. 

Many British, New Zealanders and others have been eating wildfowl, pheasants and other small game shot with small lead pellets for centuries.  During my lifetime I must have swallowed many shot as have many thousands of others.  There have been no ill effects. 

On the heather moors of Scotland grouse have been driven and shot over permanent butts.  In the heyday of grouse shooting a “gun” might fire hundreds of rounds each containing more than an ounce of lead pellets.  There might have been a dozen “guns” or more each assisted by a loader carrying a second shotgun.  There must be veritable lead mines around these buttes! 

The grouse have thrived and the sheep have thrived.  Nothing has suffered from lead poisoning.  Now we have supposed “experts” bleating about brass taps!  Brass is an alloy of copper and zinc.  It may contain traces of lead, but only traces.  If we have small children suffering from a high lead content in their blood I submit that it is most probably due to cheap paint on wooden toys and old house paint.