What Is Lead poisoning

Lead poisoning is a name with a poetic air to define lead poisoning. Many painters throughout history (in the end we will gossip) have suffered this disease due to the composition of the pigments with which they painted their works.

Why is lead poisoning called “lead poisoning”?

I consulted the great expert, Fernando Navarro , who is a “dictionaryist”, doctor and medical translator, and he explained to me that in the past seven celestial bodies were known and, related to them, seven days a week and seven metals: Moon-Monday-silver, Mars-Tuesday-iron, Mercury-Wednesday-mercury, Jupiter-Thursday-tin, Venus-Friday-copper, Saturn-Saturday-lead and Sun-Sunday-gold. At this point I can’t resist sharing the song from Los Planetas by Enrique and Ana.

Saturn’s association with lead would come from medieval alchemists: they did not explain the reason for their associations, but in this case it seems likely that it was: slower planet with heavier metal.

There are other unlikely theories circulating out there that lead poisoning comes from the saturnalia (be careful not to be confused with bacchanalia), that they were Roman festivals in which wine from leaded amphoras was drunk and that is where the disease comes from.

Since when does this disease exist?

If the Romans already drank wine in lead-covered amphorae, lead poisoning is something that goes back a long way and has affected many people beyond painters due to pigments … Hippocrates was the first to define the disease as colic pain, fatigue, pallor, weight loss, nervous spasms … These are symptoms similar to those reported later by other doctors. There is a treatise published in 1796 entitled “Treatise on Colic in Madrid” by Ignacio María Ruiz de Luzuriaga. He spoke of “palsy,” which was tremor, arguably similar to parkinson’s (this was something Renoir suffered from). And also of blindness, tinnitus, deafness … that as we know, Goya suffered.
And in 1843 it was defined as “painter’s colic” in the London Medical and Surgical Journal. Here it is already suspecting, because so much acute stomach pain without evidence of intestinal disease does not add up much and it is concluded that the origin was a nervous condition of the intestines when lead is absorbed. Actually once inside the body, lead is distributed to the brain, liver, kidneys and bones, and teeth. There is a characteristic sign that they are black gums.

How do lead poisonings occur today?

People can be exposed to lead at their workplace or in their environment, through:

  • Ingestion of contaminated food, water, or dust (for example, water channeled through lead pipes or food packaged in containers with lead enamel or welded with this metal).
  • Inhalation of lead particles generated by the combustion of materials containing this metal (this can happen in industry, gasoline …) but also by inhalation by stripping of lead paint.

What is the treatment in lead poisoning?

The first thing to do is to isolate the patient from the lead source. Gastric lavage is practiced in the treatment of acute poisoning. Efficacy can be verified by plain abdominal radiography because lead is radio-opaque. The chelators indicated in lead poisoning are BAL followed by the administration of disodium calcium EDTA administration started 4 hours later.

Lead: currently banned in pigment manufacturing

Set to carry out an exhaustive investigation, in addition to Fernando Navarro I spoke with Fátima Casaseca, a Spanish writer who studied in Germany and stayed because she related to the family that runs Pigmentos Kremer, a company that is dedicated to making pigments by hand . Fatima told me that lead white was a very common material for windows because it protects wood and is very resistant to inclement weather. Before it was free circulation, but now it is banned in the EU and you can only buy the paint if you accredit a restorer’s permit (WHO has a World Alliance to Eliminate the Use of Lead in Paint). However, Fatima told me that in Germany in recent years when people have sanded and repainted their windows many have been poisoned because they end up breathing lead.

Fatima’s husband David commented that there are pigments with which you have to be very careful when handling because they are obtained from arsenic sulfide. He referred me to an article from Harvard University that talks about the “deadly beauty” of some pigments like the crystalline powder of copper acetoarsenite, a brilliant shade of emerald green, from the vibrant background of the «Self-portrait dedicated to Paul Gauguin »from the Fogg Museum by Vincent van Gogh. Very nice but it was also highly toxic. As we said with lead white, many of these compounds are currently restricted.

And the minium? It also has lead and this paint has been used extensively in the past to protect. Is it also prohibited?

The minium or red Saturn is lead tetroxide. Lead formulation is also prohibited because of its toxicity. What you can buy now is synthetic minium. It has a curious history also related to artistic painting. The name Minio is said to come from the Miño river, because it was obtained naturally on the banks of the river. With the vermilion colored minium, the medieval codices were painted and from there the word “miniature” derives, from the small drawings.

Who were painters affected by lead poisoning throughout history?


He used lead antimoniate for his famous Naples yellow color as in “Fruit Basket” which is one of the earliest still lifes. He was not well known as to what had died but recently his bones were analyzed for carbon 14 and he had plumbosis or lead poisoning. It seems that he died of that together with heat stroke. He also had syphilis, malaria… It was a Caravaggio gem.


In addition to the aerosols for the discharge in his workshop of the large amounts of pigments he ordered (more than 45 kg of white lead – lead carbonate – lead in one year), he sometimes applied the pigments with his fingers directly on the canvas. With that pigment he painted the dresses white like that of the Countess of Chinchón. They prescribed him to go to the baths of Trillo, which was then recommended to cure of lead poisoning and there is a self-portrait of goya being attended by his doctor (The thing about Saturn devouring his son, by the way, has nothing to do with lead poisoning).

Van Gogh:

He constantly used Naples yellow, like Caravaggio, but there is no clear evidence that he had lead poisoning. It is believed that on the one hand, he was good at absinthe and this produced a yellow halo around objects and also digitalis poisoning, which was a plant that was used for epilepsy in the late nineteenth century (because it appears in two of his paintings) this plant produces xanthopsia (the yellow halo).


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