Environmental Geochemistry and Health

, Volume 28, Issue 5, pp 421-430

First online:

Human teeth as historical biomonitors of environmental and dietary lead: some lessons from isotopic studies of 19th and 20th century archival material

  • J.G. FarmerAffiliated withSchool of GeoSciences, University of Edinburgh Email author 
  • , A.B. MacKenzieAffiliated withScottish Universities Environmental Research Centre
  • , G.H. MoodyAffiliated withEdinburgh Dental Institute, University of Edinburgh

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The lead isotopic composition of various sections (crown, crown base, root) of teeth was determined in specimens collected from 19th century skulls preserved in museum collections and, upon extraction or exfoliation, from humans of known ages residing in Scotland in the 1990s. For most 20th century samples, calculation of accurate crown-complete or root-complete dates of tooth formation ranging from the 1920s to the 1990s enabled comparison of 206Pb/207Pb ratios for teeth sections (crown base root) with corresponding decadally averaged data for archival herbarium Sphagnum moss samples. This showed that the teeth sections had been significantly influenced by incorporation of non-contemporaneous (more recent) lead subsequent to the time of tooth formation, most probably via continuous uptake by dentine. This finding confirmed that separation of enamel from dentine is necessary for the potential of teeth sections as historical biomonitors of environmental (and dietary) lead exposure at the time of tooth formation to be realised. Nevertheless, the mean 19th century value of 1.172±0.007 for the 206Pb/207Pb ratio in teeth was very similar to the corresponding mean value of 1.173±0.004 for 19th century archival moss, although relative contributions from environmental sources – whether direct, by inhalation/ingestion of dust contaminated by local lead smelting (206Pb/207Pb~1.17) and coal combustion (206Pb/207Pb~1.18) emissions, or indirect, through ingestion of similarly contaminated food – and drinking/cooking water contaminated by lead pipes of local origin, cannot readily be determined. In the 20th century, however, the much lower values of the 206Pb/207Pb ratio (range 1.100–1.166, mean 1.126±0.013, median 1.124) for the teeth collected from various age groups in the 1990s reflect the significant influence of imported Australian lead of lower 206Pb/207Pb ratio (~1.04) and released to the environment most notably through car-exhaust emissions arising from the use of alkyl lead additives (206Pb/207Pb~1.06–1.09) in petrol in the U.K. from ca. 1930 until the end of the 20th century.


biomonitor human lead lead isotopes teeth