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Dr Sasha Turchyn
University of Cambridge
Visiting Professorship

Lead in Cambridge drinking water

An expert at extracting paleoenvironmental information from the geologic record, John Higgins joins the Department of Earth Sciences as Leverhulme Visiting Professor to collaborate on a number of projects

Infographic about lead in water

For Professor John Higgins’ visit to the University of Cambridge, we proposed to study how changes in sea level and the extent of shallow oceans might influence the carbon cycle. Over the course of his visit, we spent much time thinking about these problems, including building a discussion group for how the carbon cycle changes over time. Therefore, although we are making progress on these critical questions, we ended up more directly collaborating on a different project in environmental geochemistry, that of lead contamination in drinking water. 

Lead is a toxic metal and lead contamination in drinking water from corroding lead-containing pipes can lead to damage to the nervous system, learning disabilities, impaired hearing and impaired blood function. Lead contamination in drinking water can be particularly harmful for children, although lead is toxic for adults as well. John runs a course on lead in the environment at Princeton University, where students learn about the chemistry of lead and take samples from houses in Trenton, a city local to Princeton which has a high concentration of lead pipes, to monitor lead levels in the city’s drinking water. 

While in Cambridge, I invited John to build a similar database of lead concentrations from drinking water throughout Cambridge. We had masters-level students sample drinking water from throughout the city and we analysed these using geochemical analytical facilities in the Department of Earth Sciences. Lead concentrations ranged from <1 to 5.5 ppb, with greater than 10ppb being the limit allowed in drinking water. We noted that there are higher concentrations of lead in drinking water in the older parts of the city than in many of the newer parts of the city. Unlike Trenton, Cambridge has fewer ‘hot spots’ of high lead concentrations in drinking water, likely because the water in Cambridge is very ‘hard’, containing high levels of calcium carbonate, which help to coat the pipes and prevent the lead from leaching into the groundwater in high concentrations. 

We also measured the lead content of archaeological samples that were excavated in Northwest Cambridge, through a co-supervised project. Previous work has shown that lead deposition in Europe and Greenland (preserved in ice) tracks periods in the Roman Empire when there was prosperity or war (high lead levels) versus those where there were plagues and famine (low lead levels). By looking at the lead content of cow teeth from 2,000 years ago, found in a Roman Villa outside of Cambridge, we were also able to see a peak in lead associated with the Roman British period, relative to low lead levels before hand. 

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