Journal Highlight: Next generation ice core technology reveals true minimum natural levels of lead (Pb) in the atmosphere: insights from the Black Death

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  • Published: Jul 3, 2017
  • Author: spectroscopyNOW
  • Channels: Atomic
thumbnail image: Journal Highlight: Next generation ice core technology reveals true minimum natural levels of lead (Pb) in the atmosphere: insights from the Black Death

ICP-MS and ultra-high resolution LA-ICP-MS measurements of atmospheric lead deposition in a glacier in the Swiss-Italian Alps contradict conventional wisdom, showing that natural background levels occurred only in a single four-year period, during the Black Death, in the 2000 years documented.

Next generation ice core technology reveals true minimum natural levels of lead (Pb) in the atmosphere: insights from the Black Death

GeoHealth, 2017, online
Alexander F. More, Nicole E. Spaulding, Pascal Bohleber, Michael J. Handley, Helene Hoffmann, Elena V. Korotkikh, Andrei V. Kurbatov, Christopher P. Loveluck, Sharon B. Sneed, Michael McCormick and Paul. A. Mayewski

Abstract: Contrary to widespread assumptions, next-generation high (annual to multi-annual) and ultra-high (sub-annual) resolution analysis of an Alpine glacier reveals that true historical minimum natural levels of lead in the atmosphere occurred only once in the last ca. 2000 years. During the Black Death pandemic, demographic and economic collapse interrupted metal production and atmospheric lead dropped to undetectable levels. This finding challenges current government and industry understanding of pre-industrial lead pollution and its potential implications for human health of children and adults worldwide. Available technology and geographic location have limited previous ice core investigations. We provide new high- (discrete, inductively coupled mass spectrometry, ICP-MS) and ultra-high resolution (laser ablation inductively coupled mass spectrometry, LA-ICP-MS) records of atmospheric lead deposition extracted from the high Alpine glacier Colle Gnifetti, in the Swiss-Italian Alps. We show that, contrary to the conventional wisdom, low levels at or approaching natural background occurred only in a single four-year period in the ca. 2000 years documented in the new ice core, during the Black Death (ca. 1349-1353 C.E.), the most devastating pandemic in Eurasian history. Ultra-high chronological resolution allows for the first time detailed and decisive comparison of the new glaciochemical data with historical records. Historical evidence shows that mining activity ceased upwind of the core site from ca. 1349 to 1353, while concurrently on the glacier lead (Pb) concentrations—dated by layer counting confirmed by radiocarbon dating—dropped to levels below detection, an order of magnitude beneath figures deemed low in earlier studies. Previous assumptions about pre-industrial “natural” background lead levels in the atmosphere—and potential impacts on humans—have been misleading, with significant implications for current environmental, industrial, and public health policy, as well as for the history of human lead exposure. Trans-disciplinary application of this new technology opens the door to new approaches to the anthropogenic impact on past and present human health.

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