Mad as a Potter from Lead Stalactites

Early experiments with tinned food led to a number of lead-poisoning cases, particularly among people who had nothing but tins to eat. Recent work by Norwegian researchers Ulf Aasebø and Kjell Kjær has documented yet another case, the hitherto mysterious deaths of seventeen seal hunters on Svalbard in 1872. Says Kjær, “Inside the tinned food we found so much lead, that it hung like icicles inside the cans”. This prompts me to re-run a blog entry from March 2006.

The hatter in Alice in Wonderland was mad as a March hare. Hares go nuts in the spring simply out of randiness. But hatters went mad for a less uplifting reason: mercury poisoning. Mercury nitrate was used to cure felt for hats.

Abraham Lincoln would also go nuts with some regularity because of the blue pills he took against depression. Elemental mercury was the secret ingredient.

Ancient metalworkers appear also to have suffered from heavy metal poisoning because of breathing the fumes from molten copper alloys. This is most likely the reason that Vulcanus, god of smiths, was pictured as physically handicapped.

i-70c30cce393b0c85200471b5736f8a38-jonkoping-keramik.jpgThese poor people were adults. But Swedish potter families used to suffer from wholesale lead poisoning, man, woman and child. My Jönköping colleague Claes Pettersson tells me that 18th century potters were infamous for their hot tempers, constantly getting into fights and doing jail time. Potters’ children were known to be sickly and prone to simplemindedness. This all had to do with lead-based pigments in the glaze on the pottery of the time. Firing a few months’ worth of pottery was a momentuous and festive occasion, perfect for a family gathering. But when fired, the glaze gave off toxic lead fumes. Poor kids.

One last tale of lead poisoning. In 1848, Greenland Inuit witnessed the zonked-out trek of a group of clearly cognitively challenged Europeans across the snow fields. They were the last survivors of John Franklin‘s ill-fated Arctic expedition: their ship had been frozen into pack-ice and most of them had gone barking mad. This was because of the hi-tech provisions they’d taken aboard: tinned food. Actually, the food was more leaded than tinned, the cans having been soldered shut with liberal amounts of lead.

These days, we know better. No lead in Tupperware. But still, Tupperware happens to have killed its share of northwest Inuit — through botulin poisoning. Northwest Inuit traditionally make and eat fermented whale blubber, a real treat, I’m told. But if you stick the blubber in a plastic box in the fridge, you create an anaerobic environment where few microbes will survive. Among those that thrive, though, are botulin bacteria. Don’t try this at home, kids.

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8 thoughts on “Mad as a Potter from Lead Stalactites

  1. It is a neat little essay, but I was struck particularly by the bit about John Franklin. I did some reading round the Franklin expedition a few years ago as support for a medal my department had acquired, that had been awarded to someone on one of the rescue exhibitions (the piece is online here). Now, I couldn’t find anything like your Inuit eye-witness story; I don’t suppose you know what the source is, do you?


  2. Agree that it is a great summary. But I don’t agree with the statement: “These days, we know better.” During the last about five decades humanity has spread a lot of different organic chemicals, among which some are prone to still give us some unpleasent surprises.
    DDT has got a quite a fame and so has also e.g. PCB. In the last few days biphenol A has got a kind of fame.
    I can give you right, Martin, that we now know much better about some toxic chemical elements, but there are organic compounds in our environments, about which much more will be learnt only in the future about their adverse effects on living organisms.


  3. Jonathan, about 20 years ago somebody excavated a few graves from Franklin’s party. Very macabre photographs, the men were in permafrost and perfectly preserved. He took hair samples from the bodies and did lead analyses, proving that the lead poisoning set in right about the date when they started to eat tins. A pop-sci magazine story about this research (don’t remember the mag) referred to oral tradition among the local Inuit about a party of Europeans who acted really weird as they trekked past.


  4. One sad little footnote to add to your excellent story comes from Texas, where I live. There was a factory that made batteries near here, in a town called Commerce. It closed down some time ago. Now, around the place, where mostly impoverished, black people live, there is an uncommonly large number of children being born with abnormalities such as missing limbs or hands connected at the shoulder — the arm did not grow. The American Civil Liberties Union tried to sue the defunct factory, in a class action suit, on behalf of the children, but had no success because the company had already gone bankrupt. The government will not clean up the area because it was owned by a private company. So, we should know better, but it seems no one wants to take responsibility.


  5. Sounds like the lead is in the water table, at which point a surface cleanup operation is not the most urgent thing to do. What those people need is an uncontaminated water supply.


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