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History of Lead Pipes

Plumbing is any system that conveys fluids for a wide range of application. Typically, plumbing involves pipes, valves, fixtures, and tanks to convey fluids. The word plumbing comes from the Latin word for lead, plumbum. This is because the first known modern plumbing system consisting of pipes was in the Roman Empire.

Plumbing is extremely important to our every day lives. Plumbing infrastructure is important to public health and sanitation, and the most important difference between developed and undeveloped societies is access to modern plumbing infrastructure. Access to adequate plumbing infrastructure is linked to an increase in life expectancy, decrease in infant mortality, and increase in economic prosperity. It is believed that the first epidemic of waterborne disease was caused by an infected person relieving himself upstream. Inadequate plumbing has been linked to a wide range of epidemics from cholera and typhoid to SARS and Ebola. For this reason, charity organizations from around the world focus on providing plumbing infrastructure to locations in which it is inadequate.

Plumbing developed in ancient societies- Greek, Roman, Persian, Indian, and Chinese, in cities along with the rise in public baths. Public baths necessitated a system to provide potable water and remove wastewater for large numbers of people. In 2700 BC, standardized pipes were introduced in the Indus Valley Civilization in South Asia. These systems used asphalt to prevent leakages in earthen pipes. The Romans introduced lead pipes and lead conduits on rooftop drain pipes.

 

Ancient Roman civilizations developed plumbing to an early apex. The Romans introduced expansive aqueducts, tile wastewater removal, and a widespread use of lead pipes. Lead became the favored material for water pipes for many centuries because its malleability gave it the versatility to conform to any desired shape. When Rome fell, so did plumbing infrastructure, and with its water supply, sanitation, and public health. This plumbing dark age lasted for over 1,000 years.

 

Plumbing systems did not again begin to develop until the rise of densely populated cities in the 1800’s. Public health authorities demanded improvements in waste disposal systems to prevent the spread of disease. Prior to these demands, waste disposal consisted of dumping waste on the ground or into a river. During this period, separate underground water and sewerage systems were developed to eliminate open sewage ditches and cesspools. These developments lead to modern wastewater disposal systems, which involve the piping of solid wastes to sewage treatment plants to separate and purify the water before emptying it into bodies of water.

The use of lead pipes, which was preferred from the time of ancient Roman civilizations to around the 1950’s, declined after World War II because of increased awareness of the dangers of lead poisoning. The use of lead piping leads to stillbirths and high rates of infant mortality. Copper piping and tin-antimony alloy soldering are now used as a better and safer alternative to lead pipes and lead-tin alloy solder. Interestingly, the lead pipes the Romans used in their aqueducts rarely poisoned people because the Roman water contained so much calcium that a layer of plaque prevented the water from contacting the lead on the pipe.

A seemingly odd variation on earthen, lead, and copper piping was utilized in London during the 16th and 17th centuries- wood pipes. Londoners preferred to fashion their pipes from hollowed-out logs. Multiple logs were sealed together with hot animal fat to create an entire plumbing system. Similar systems were also used in Montreal, Boston, and other parts of the United States from the 1800’s through the 20th century. Cast iron and ductile iron pipe have also been utilized as a low-cost piping alternative. Currently, PVC piping is used as a durable and low-cost piping material.

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