Children's research part of Shang Dynasty lead poisoning documentary

by Kristin Cantu on March 16, 2010

Alan Woolf, MD, MPH was part of a team that conducted experiments to find out if the vessels the Shang Dynasty drank from contributed to their early demise due to a combination of liquid and the materials the vessels were made from.

A documentary airing on the National Geographic channel tonight – Treasure Tomb of the Warrior Queen – explores just that.

Woolf took the time to answer this question for Thrive:

Did lead poisoning pose a potential health risk to the nobility in the ancient Chinese Shang Dynasty?

Lead-contaminated cookware, dishes and pottery have been known sources of human poisoning from antiquity to the present. Lead has been found in the skeletal remains of ancient Romans. Roman dishes, beverage containers, cooking cauldrons and the like were all heavily contaminated with it. It has even been speculated that ill health brought on by chronic lead poisoning may have contributed to the downfall of Rome.

Less is known about the possible effects of lead on the health of early period Chinese dynasties such as the Shang. There are few traces in the Shang burial mounds that would reveal information about their common health problems. However, evidence from both oracle bone inscriptions and artifacts found in burial sites, including that of empress Fu Hao near Anyang in the Henan Province, suggests that the Shang emperors and upper classes regularly stored and drank grain-fermented wines from bronze vessels. These magnificent bronzes were used both for everyday purposes and for ritualized divinations, sacrifices and other commonly observed ceremonies. Indeed, there is evidence that the Shang nobility were heavy drinkers.

Analysis of the many ornate and beautiful Shang bronzes of copper and tin has revealed the presence of lead in the alloys in concentrations from as little as 0.2 percent to as much as 20 percent. The lead may have been an inadvertent contaminant of the ore mined to make the bronze-ware, or it may have been added by metallurgists in the fabrication process to aid in the carvings on the drinking goblets, pots and cauldrons. Lead is a malleable metal quite suitable for creating the intricate, ornate patterns and pictures found in the castings. Since lead is a preservative, lead-adulterated wines do not sour easily; the metal itself imparts a sweet taste to wine.

And so our experiment at Children’s Hospital Boston used three bronze receptacles fabricated to resemble the Shang vessels. The alloy we used was a mixture of tin, copper and lead in proportions similar to the metals found in analyzes of numerous Shang bronzes. A lead content of 8 percent was chosen since this was the mid-point in the range of Shang-era bronze lead concentrations. We placed three different liquids in the goblets: Shaoxing rice wine (chosen to resemble the grain fermented wines routinely imbibed by the Shang nobility), a white grape wine and tap water as two control liquids. Then we periodically sampled the wine and analyzed it for lead contamination over the subsequent seven-day period.

The results of our experiment were astounding. As much as 113,000 g/L of lead had leached into the wines in as little as 48 hours. As expected, the more acidic grape wine leached more lead than the rice wine, but both were heavily contaminated. By comparison, the current regulations of the Food and Drug Administration in the United States limit daily intake of all sources of lead to a maximum of 75 g/day.

These results do not tell the whole story, and the numbers should be interpreted cautiously. The bronzes and rice wine used in the experiment are probably quite a bit different from those available to the Chinese aristocracy in 1100 B.C. But it seems plausible to suggest that some of these exquisite Shang bronzes were capable of releasing lead into the wines they contained. Did empress and warrior Fu Hao suffer from chronic lead poisoning? Did it adversely influence her health and even shorten her life? We may never know for sure. But the hypothesis only adds to the intrigue contained within her fascinating story.

Lead poisoning is a preventable disease and while it’s not as common as it used to be, occurrences do still pop up. It can affect just about every system in the body yet often produces no definitive symptoms. The following are some of the most common symptoms of lead poisoning.

  • damage to the brain and nervous system
  • behavior and learning problems
  • slowed growth
  • hearing problems
  • headaches
  • anemia

You can read more about lead poisoning here.

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