Samurai lead poisoning

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An interesting study has shown how people in the samurai class of Edo period Japan were poisoning their children with lead. The results are reported in a current paper in the Journal of Archaeological Science by Tamiji Nakashima and colleagues Nakashima:2010. They applied forensic techniques to skeletal remains from the period.

Lead poisoning has long been suspected as a factor affecting the aristocracy of late imperial Rome. There, the causes were mainly in the plumbing, made as it was from plumbum. But in Japan, the guilty party was makeup:

In view of the higher contamination in female bone than male, we assumed that facial cosmetics (white lead) were one of the main sources of lead exposure. During the Edo period, cosmetics became popular and the vogue was usually introduced by Kabuki actors, courtesans and geisha through ukiyoe prints and popular literature, and by beauticians who helped establish fashions. The white face powders used in those days were keifun (mercury chloride) and empaku (white lead). Mercury chloride was imported mainly from China, and white lead was popular in Japan, although the toxic nature of lead cosmetics was not recognized. Ikutarou Hirai, the first professor of the Department of Pediatrics at Kyoto University, revealed in 1923 that so-called tentative meningitis of infants was actually caused by lead-containing face powder used by mothers (Horiguchi, 2006).

They haven’t been explicit about how the lead was transferred from mother to infant, it may just have been incidental contact and consumption. The consequences were in a few cases severe:

From the anatomical point of view, there were five cases in which anomalies of bone were seen (Fig. 1). These were hypertrophy of the long bones and a few lead lines or lead bands. These roentgenographic pictures of dense metaphyseal bands seen in the growing long bones of children with lead poisoning are familiar to radiologists (Leone, 1968). These anomalies were seen in all the long bones of the upper and lower extremities in the five cases. Sachs (1981) reported that the appearance of a lead line required a minimum blood lead concentration (PbB) of 70-80 ?g / dL.

They also speculate as to possible psychopathology resulting from the lead exposure.

I think it’s interesting to find these cases where technology, adopted first by the elites, ends up biting them with unanticipated side effects. Usually they don’t even know what hit them.