In the search for the most dazzling white pigments, the ancient Greeks stumbled on to a lead - a heavy metal that provided striking density and opacity. Despite serious health risks associations with lead paint exposure, use of lead white pervaded until well into the 19th century. Painters who were exposed to lead paint and powder experienced telltale signs of lead poisoning, which was then called "painter's colic." These symptoms included palsies, melancholies, and coughing, which worsened over time.
Yet, lead was not banned from paint until the 1970s. By this time, it was apparent that lead had serious toxic side effects in the human body. In particular, the brain is sensitive to lead, and exposure can cause lower IQ and learning disabilities. Researchers think lead blocks brain receptors that are important for neuronal growth and plasticity. Furthermore, lead can mimic and inhibit the actions of calcium, which causes toxicities in many organ systems. Watch the video to learn more about how lead affects the brain and the body.