history. mental health. lead. poisoning.

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the eter­nal hour of lead by deb­o­rah blum from speakeasy sci­ence blog from plos blogs

Accord­ing to Tamiji Nakashima, an anatomist at the Uni­ver­sity of Occu­pa­tional and Envi­ron­men­tal Health in Kitakyushu, the inves­ti­ga­tors stud­ied the remains of samu­rai men, their wives and chil­dren, about 70 in total. Ear­lier tests had found unusu­ally high lev­els in the women com­pared to men; the last study looked at the chil­dren. The researchers tested for lead in rib bones, x-​rayed the chil­drens’ arm and leg bones look­ing for signs of lead poisoning.

The Japan­ese sci­en­tists had already con­cluded that the lead lev­els in women were directly related to the white face paint pop­u­lar in aris­to­cratic cir­cles, which turned out to be loaded with lead. They won­dered if expo­sure to the same mate­r­ial might have harmed the chil­dren and the new results showed them pre­cisely right; they found evi­dence of lead lev­els more than 120 times back­ground level as well as bands of lead deposits in the bones.

Nakashima and his col­leagues believe that the chil­dren were poi­soned by touch, as they were fed, hugged, car­ried by their moth­ers, the lead-​rich paint rubbed off on them. They also spec­u­late that the grad­ual lead-​poisoning – with its inevitable taint of death and dis­abil­ity – helped put an end to the shogu­nate reign in the late 19th cen­tury, set­ting up the trans­fer of power to an emperor.