Lead, Fluoride, the Roman Empire and the Decline of Academic Achievement in the United States

by Dan Montgomery
November 1, 1997

Could fluoride contribute to an impairment of academic performance? In 1995, Dr. Mullenix and others published a report of lab research showing that sodium fluoride caused brain defects in rats. Sodium fluoride is not the acid fluoride that is commonly added to public water systems, but there is no reason to doubt that the fluoride ions from acid fluoride are as harmful as the fluoride ions from sodium fluoride.

Heavy metals and toxic chemicals may have already contributed to the economic decline of the United States. During the last half of the twentieth century, we have had an era of acid fluoride and metal water pipes. Heavy metals are leached from metal water pipes because of the low pH of water in many parts of the United States. Older homes were built with metal water pipes. These metal water pipes are found typically in central cities. During most of the era of fluoridation, acid fluoride was added to public water supplies without regard to how much it contributed to the leaching of heavy metals. The EPA now recommends that sodium hydroxide be added to water systems to raise the pH high enough to reduce the corrosion of metal pipes and water fixtures to politically acceptable levels.

The ancient Romans used lead for making water pipes, cooking utensils, water tanks and storage vessels. Lead water pipes were used in most major cities in the empire. Wine was cheap in ancient Rome and Athens and it was contaminated with lead from as many as 14 sources during its preparation. Lead was used as part of the preservative and as a flavor enhancer. Even the Christian sacramental cups of that era were the kind that were made of lead or leaded bronze common at the time.

Apathy and gluttony have been associated with the decline of the Roman Empire. It may have been the lead in food, water and wine which caused the apathy. Musonius, a Roman writing in the first century A.D., observed that masters were weaker, less healthy and less able to endure labor than the servant class. Those who grew up in the country were stronger than those who grew up in the city. Those who ate plain food were likely to live longer and have less of the diseases associated, by hindsight, with lead poisoning. These were "gouts," "dropsies" and colics." This is as close as anyone got to discovering chronic lead poisoning in the Roman Empire and leaving a record of the hypothesis.

The rich received more than their share of lead poisoning because they could afford more of the sources of lead contamination. When soft water sits in lead pipes, it leaches the lead from the pipes. In ancient Rome, the rich controlled most of the public water outlets. The first drawn water of the morning, which had been sitting over night absorbing lead, was a privilege of the rich. The evidence suggests that the offspring of parents with lead poisoning were more likely to be underachievers and had a high infant mortality rate. Chronic lead poisoning persistently destroyed the Roman aristocracy, thus creating a scarcity of good management. Old aristocratic families died out only to be replaced by others who suffered the same fate. Nriagu conludes that lead contamination was a major cause of the decline of the Roman Empire. (1)

Today, a real attempt is being made to keep lead out of public water systems. The decline of intelligence may not all be ascribed to lead and acid fluoride. There are other heavy metals and other toxic chemicals. The element of history that is repeating itself is that the damage to intelligence and behavioral ability impairs activities which require good mental ability. The biological causes are unknown, ignored or delt with ineffectively. As a result, economic productivity is less than it would have been and the ability to manage a complex political and economic system declines. In ancient Rome, the aristocracy lost its ability to govern competently because of lead poisoning. It is probable that they had chronic lead intoxication. Poor management by the aristocracy contributed to the decline of the empire.

New technology and investment are made more profitable by a highly trained work force. The decline of academic achievement has an effect on the economy. In the first half of this century, the IQ test scores of Ameridcan high school students increased an average of 1.69 points per decade. Academic achievement scores continued to rise until about 1967 and then declined until 1980. This decline was a total of 1.23 grade-level equivalents, which means a graduating high school senior in 1980 knew less than an eleventh grader in 1967. High school students graduating in 1967 would have been born around 1950, the beginning of the era of fluoride toothpaste and fluoridation.

Until 1973, each generation joined the work force with a better academic preparation than earlier generations who had the same amount of years in school. This improvement has ceased. the declining test scores have a ripple effect. The productivity of the 18 to 24 age group is affected first, then that of the 25 to 34 age group and so on. Because teenagers contribute litle to the economy, the loss of productivity was not noticeable until the middle of the 1970's when the students with the declining test scores started entering the labor force.

The major impact of declining test scores came in the 1980's. There should have been greater productivity growth because of favorable economic conditions, but it didn't happen. It has been estimated that during the 1990's the productivity growth rate will be nearly 2% per year less than it would have been if academic achievement had not declined. The lack of adequately trained personnel for high paying jobs will continue to increase until at least the year 2010. The productivity loss currently may be about $86 billion per year and John Bishop predicted it may double in about fifteen years from the 1989 date of his economic research. The indirect cost may be even greater. Underachievers are more likely to live on welfare and get into trouble with the law. (2)

From 1983 to 1988, the test scores of applicants for medical school declined. This cannot be attributed to the doors being opened to larger numbers of students. The ratio of applicants to those who were accepted was 2.8:1 in 1975. Bty 1985, it had declined to 1.:1. This decline is affecting all branches of medicine. A smaller proportion of medical students are interested in pursuing a career in internal medicine. (3)

The Journal of the American Dental Association has published cover stories on dental fluorosis, but the choice of offically recognized effects is limited and they still think that fluorosis is something that can be controlled by dentists as managers of their patient's dental health. The American Pediatrics Society has warned pediatricians that fluoride supplements for young children should be carefully controlled. They still think that fluoride intake of young children can be adequately controlled by pediatricians as if every family could afford extended pediatric health care. They naively believe that it is easy and economical to measure total fluoride intake of each young child.

Many explanations for the decline of academic achievement have been offered. There may be a grain of truth to all of them. One explanation that should not be overlooked is that a combination of fluoride and heavy metals has persistently contributed to the decline of academic achievement. During the early years of fluoridation, acid fluoride was added to public water systems without concern for the leaching of heavy metals from old metal pipes.

It's not the lead poisoning that repeats history so much as it is the lack of control of chemical contamination. The economic system is driven by distorted priorities. The human resource is being damaged. Off shore industries are now plundering human resources in other countries. It takes a generation to see the damage. Measuring the damage after it has happened will do little good.


  1. Jerome O. Nriagu, Lead and Lead Poisoning in Antiquity (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1983), pp. 309-415.
  2. John M Bishop, "Is the Test Score Decline Responsible for the Productivity decline?" American Economic Review, 79 (1989), 178-197.
  3. John J. Norcini, et al., "Trends in Medical Knowledge as Assessed by the Certifying Examination in Internal Medicine," Journal of the American Medica Association, 262 (1989), 2402-2404.
Home | Environment