Lead Poisoning in Sheffield 1885–1920 by Mike Collins on 14th January 2019

A lot of Sheffield water ori­gin­ates from Redmires Reservoir, which was built in the 1830’s.  Iron ore pipes were laid in the streets and lead pipes con­nec­ted to houses.  There were also lead-lined cisterns.

Sinclair White, in 1886, drew the author­it­ies’ atten­tion to the fact that lead pois­on­ing was more pre­val­ent from houses sup­plied by Redmires (i.e. those in Broomhill, Broomhall, Sharrow and Heeley) than those sup­plied from Strines, Agden, Dale Dike Reservoirs (Penistone Road, Wicker and Brightside).

M.O.H. Sinclalir White advised people not to drink water that had been stand­ing in lead pipes and cisterns but to flush the water before drink­ing.  Redmires water was very acidic and he advised that it should be brought into con­tact with lime­stone to reduce the acid­ity which was dis­solv­ing the lead from the pipes.

Various enquiry com­mit­tees were set up in 1890, and though the evid­ence that lead from the pipes caused lead pois­on­ing. It was opposed by Edward Eaton, an engin­eer of the Water Board.  The result of the enquiry was that the res­id­ents using Redmires water were liable to pois­on­ing and that cal­cium car­bon­ate, in the form of chalk, be added to the reser­voir water.  There was a delay, due to mis­com­mu­nic­a­tion, vested interests and a change of the M.O.H.  This res­ul­ted in a peak of 169 patients with lead pois­on­ing being treated in hos­pital and it was thought that around 2000 people in Sheffield had got lead pois­on­ing.  The birth rate and fer­til­ity in Sheffield was at an all time low and the increase in pois­on­ing cases was due to a number of factors i.e. use of cheaper Spanish lead (more likely to dis­solve) and an explo­sion in house build­ing.

In recent times, 2014/15 a place called Flint, in Michigan, decided to save money by using water from the local River Flint instead of a more expens­ive supply from Detroit.  The Flint River water was very acidic and led to 10,000 cases of lead pois­on­ing and 12 deaths from Legionnaires dis­ease.  Phosphates were added and the supply of water rever­ted to that from Detroit.

The effects of lead pois­on­ing included:  blind­ness, kidney fail­ure, wrist-drop, mis­car­riages, abdom­inal pain and con­stip­a­tion.  The gums took on a blue shade (one third of people sup­plied by Redmires had blue gums.)

Another source of lead pois­on­ing was in cider making, lead being added as a sweetener.  In recent times the lead in paint was a hazard, tod­dlers chewed paint off lead-painted cots, caus­ing ill­ness.

In the early 20th cen­tury, pills con­tain­ing lead were advert­ised to women to pro­duce abor­tions. Lots of adverts in news­pa­pers were used to encour­age the sale of these pills.  Diachylon, a plaster made from plant juices and lead, was used to treat wounds but was com­monly used by women to bring on a mis­car­riage.

Thus lead in water was a primary cause of dis­ease in many cases during the period between 1890 and early 1900’s.

It is still estim­ated that 300,000 people around the world the world die from lead pois­on­ing.

The talk was very well received and many ques­tions put to the speaker who was thanked for his inter­est­ing present­a­tion.