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.