The Mystery of Pompeii Poisoned Water

Constructed centuries ago, the sprawling water system of ancient Rome has come to be a marker of the civilization’s advanced way of life. But, these same pipes may unknowingly have been poisoning the people who relied on them.

Experts have long suspected Rome’s water pipes were detrimental to public health. And, the new research from the University of Southern Denmark adds further support to this hypothesis.

Instead of lead being to blame, however, the analysis suggests antimony was poisoning the public, at least in Pompeii.

”The concentrations were high and were definitely problematic for the ancient Romans,” said Kaare Lund Rasmussen, a specialist in archaeological chemistry at the University of Southern Denmark.

‘Their drinking water must have been decidedly hazardous to health.’

Antimony is known to occur naturally in groundwater near volcanoes, and the researcher says this likely played a role in the high concentration seen in the Pompeii sample, due to its nearness to Mount Vesuvius, The Daily Mail reports.

The researchers analyzed the ancient fragment using a Bruker 820 Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometer – a ‘particularly advanced’ instrument that can detect the chemical elements in a given sample.

It’s previously been suggested that lead in the Roman pipes caused the citizens to inadvertently poison themselves.

But, not all agree that lead was a major factor in the Roman’s health, the researcher notes.

‘This thesis is not always tenable,’ Rasmussen says.‘A lead pipe gets calcified rather quickly, thereby preventing the lead from getting into the drinking water. In other words, there were only short periods when the drinking water was poisoned by lead: for example, when the pipes were laid or when they were repaired: assuming, of course, that there was lime in the water, which there usually was.”

According to Rasmussen, in the ancient times, builders used those easy-molded metals to fix pipes, which explains why Pompeii’s residents were complaining of health problems.

Antimony is acutely toxic, and causes a reaction it soon after it’s consumed.

For the people drinking the water that ran through these pipes, this could have brought on severe health consequences, including vomiting, diarrhea, liver and kidney damage, and in extreme cases, even cardiac arrest.