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  • Writer's pictureTim Coyne

The Legacy of Lead Plumbing: How Ancient Rome's Ingenuity Still Challenges Us.

Updated: Mar 9, 2023

The term "plumbing" comes from the Latin word "plumbum," which means "lead." In ancient times, lead was the most commonly used material for making pipes and plumbing fixtures, so the term "plumbing" originally referred to the craft of working with lead. The use of lead pipes in ancient Roman drinking water systems can be traced back to as early as the 3rd century BC. As the Roman Empire expanded, so did the demand for reliable sources of drinking water, and lead was seen as an ideal material for plumbing due to its durability, flexibility, and resistance to corrosion.

Roman plumbing systems were complex, with water being sourced from springs, wells, or aqueducts and transported to public fountains, baths, and private homes via a network of lead pipes. The pipes were typically made by casting molten lead around a wooden core, which was then removed, leaving a hollow lead tube. The pipes were often quite large in diameter, with some measuring up to a foot in diameter, and they were joined together using lead solder.

While the ancient Romans did not fully understand the health risks associated with lead at the time, there is evidence that they were aware of its toxicity to some degree. For example, the Roman architect Vitruvius warned about the dangers of lead poisoning in his writings and suggested using terracotta pipes instead of lead ones for certain applications. Nonetheless, lead continued to be used in plumbing systems throughout the Roman Empire until the 4th century AD, when it began to be replaced by other materials such as terracotta, stone, and clay.

Today, we know that lead can leach into drinking water from lead pipes and cause a variety of health problems, including developmental delays in children and cognitive impairment in adults. While lead pipes are no longer used in modern plumbing systems, many older buildings still have lead pipes in place, and there is ongoing concern about the safety of drinking water in areas where lead pipes are still in use.

In 2016, the American Water Works Association estimated that it would cost between $1 trillion and $1.5 trillion to replace all of the lead pipes in the United States over a 25-year period. This estimate includes both the cost of replacing lead service lines and the cost of upgrading treatment plants and other infrastructure to reduce the risk of lead contamination.

Replacing all the lead pipes in America would be a massive undertaking that would require significant investment from federal, state, and local governments, as well as cooperation from private water utilities and individual property owners. Until such a time, cost saving solutions such as Phosphates can coat these lead pipes with a protective layer keeping citizens safe for decades to come. Reach out to a Sterling Specialist on the contact page to find out what Phosphates will work best for you.

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