Lead poisoning is one of the oldest diseases known to humankind, occurring from the time humans learned to smelt and use lead, at least 5000 years ago. The disease was recognized and described by ancient Egyptian and Greek physicians and was so widespread during the Roman civilization that more than one scholar has suggested that it significantly weakened that society and may have led to its downfall. During the medieval history of Europe, there occurred outbreaks of lead "colic" (so named for the striking abdominal pain symptomatic of adult lead poisoning) often in association with poor wine vintages, as lead was commonly used in those times to "doctor" sour wine and restore a sweet taste. The practice was so common and known to be detrimental to those who drank the wine that it was banned in the Holy Roman Empire.
In colonial America, lead was known to cause disease in printers and rum distillers, and was famous for causing "cider colic," a condition produced by drinking cider stored in pewter vessels from which lead "leached" in large amounts. Benjamin Franklin spoke of it in his correspondence with Dr. Benjamin Rush, a noted physician of the time.
Lead was first introduced as a pigment or paint early in the nineteenth century. Because lead ore in the Midwestern United States was so pure, America soon became the lead supplier to the world for this purpose, building a large and influential lead industry. By 1975, virtually every new home built in the northeastern quadrant of the United States received a coat of lead paint, which was really lead oxide suspended in linseed oil, known as "lead-in-oil." Pigments