Magazine article Geographical

How Rome Polluted the World: We Tend to Think of Industrial Pollution as a Modern Phenomenon but, as David Keys Reveals, the Ancient Romans Were Already Contaminating the Air, Land and Sea with Toxic Metals Two Millennia Ago

Magazine article Geographical

How Rome Polluted the World: We Tend to Think of Industrial Pollution as a Modern Phenomenon but, as David Keys Reveals, the Ancient Romans Were Already Contaminating the Air, Land and Sea with Toxic Metals Two Millennia Ago

Article excerpt

Under the relentless desert sun of southern Jordan lies a poisoned landscape that looks for all the world like a vast shattered mass of black volcanic lava. But the nearest active volcano is in Sicily, almost 2,000 kilometres to the west and the nearest genuine major lava fields are 500 kilometres to the north in northern Syria.

In reality, this vision of the apocalypse is 100 per cent man-made. But it isn't the handiwork of modern humanity. This wrecked environment, one of the most polluted on the planet, is the product of the world's first industrial revolution--that of ancient Rome. At its height, the Roman Empire was producing up to 80,000 tonnes of lead and 15,000 tonnes of copper each year, a level of output not achieved again until the 18th century.

One of the Roman industrial revolution's greatest production complexes--Jordan's Wadi Faynan, 120 kilometres north of the modern Red Sea port of Aqaba--is now being investigated by scientists from the universities of Leicester, Nottingham and Aberystwyth, who are determined to discover what impact industrial pollution had on the Roman world. Their work, along with parallel research by other scientists, suggests that hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people living in Europe and the Middle East between the first century BC and the second century AD were blighted, or had their lives cut short, by high levels of pollution and contamination that sometimes surpassed those of the 19th-century Industrial Revolution.

Pollutants were produced and dispersed in a variety of ways. Initially, when ore-bearing rocks were moved into the open air, substantial quantities of dust would have been blown into the atmosphere. This was a particular problem at Wadi Faynan, where desert dust storms are a frequent occurrence.

Then, when the ore was smelted, large quantities of waste material escaped from the operation as very fine dust and were lifted into the atmosphere by the heat generated by the smelting furnaces. The techniques the Romans used to smelt the metal resulted in emissions of ultra-fine-dust pollution that were at least ten times higher than those seen in 19th-century Europe; the smelting pollution rate for copper was extraordinarily high--15 per cent--while that for lead was five per cent.

The main metal mined in Wadi Faynan was copper, and estimates suggest that up to 2,300 tonnes of the metal were released into the atmosphere each year. The major production centres for lead were in Spain, with smaller ones located in Greece, the Balkans and Britain. The combined emissions from these operations could have been as high as 4,000 tonnes per year.

Some of this material found its way into the middle troposphere--about six kilometres up--and then fell to Earth hundreds, or even thousands, of kilometres away. French researchers studying ice cores from Greenland estimate that something in the region of 800 tonnes of Roman copper and 400 tonnes of lead 'rained' down on Greenland in the form of polluted snow between 500 BC and 300 AD.

However, the vast majority of the pollution would have fallen within a few kilometres of the production sites, contaminating water sources and plants. Livestock that grazed on polluted pastures would have produced polluted milk and meal. Contaminated manure from these animals would also have been used as fertiliser, further contaminating crops. Humans and animals were poisoned by simply breathing in toxic fumes and particulates.

Other toxic metals produced as unintended by-products of Roman mining and smelting operations included arsenic (from lead/silver mining) and thallium (from copper mining).

All of these toxins have appalling health implications. High levels of copper cause convulsions, severe sweating, vomiting, diarrhoea, a reduction in fertility--the metal reduces the production and speed of sperm--and possibly liver and lung cancers. It is thought that it alto stunts foetal growth, which could lead to a reduction in the size and mental ability of children. …

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