The water crisis in Flint, Mich., has been a recent focal point, but the issue of lead pollution is both global and pervasive. As Thursday evening’s “Lead Summit at Harvard: Revolutionary Discoveries in Lead Pollution and Health Impacts” made clear, man-made sources of atmospheric lead not only reach back through the centuries, but they have increasingly deadly effects on some of our most vulnerable groups.

To tackle a problem that goes beyond medicine into social and economic realms, the summit at Boylston Hall took an interdisciplinary approach. Organized by the Initiative for the Science of the Human Past at Harvard, a group devoted to bringing together scientists and humanists, the event began with a far-reaching retrospective.

Following an introduction by Michael McCormick, Francis Goelet Professor of Medieval History and chair of the initiative, Philip Landrigan, M.D. ’67, professor of biology and director of both the Global Public Health Program and the Global Observatory on Pollution and Health at the Boston College School of Public Health, looked back at humanity’s 5,000-year history with lead, from the first Mesopotamian figurines in 3500 B.C. through its industrial role as an additive in gasoline and paint.

There were early warnings about the wide-ranging effects of lead exposure. Some scientists have even speculated that the Roman Empire declined in part because of the many people who sweetened their wine with a lead-based syrup.

“Humans have been using and playing with lead for a long, long time,” said Landrigan, whose studies contributed to the policy decision years ago to remove lead from paint. “As exposure has been increasing, we’ve come to learn, repeatedly to our chagrin, that levels of lead that we thought were safe are in fact not safe.”

Read more at the Harvard Gazette