The Pb isotopic record of historical to modern human lead exposure

George D. Kamenov*, Brian L. Gulson

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    73 Citations (Scopus)


    Human teeth and bones incorporate trace amounts of lead (Pb) from the local environment during growth and remodeling. Anthropogenic activities have caused changes in the natural Pb isotopic background since historical times and this is reflected in the Pb isotopes of historical European teeth. Lead mining and use increased exponentially during the last century and the isotopic compositions of modern human teeth reflect the modern anthropogenic Pb. USA teeth show the most radiogenic Pb and Australian teeth show the least radiogenic Pb, a result of different Pb ores used in the two regions. During the last century the Australian Pb was exported to Europe, Asia, South America, and Africa, resulting in swamping of the local environmental Pb signal by the imported Pb. As a result, the modern human teeth in Europe show a significant drop to lower isotopic values compared with historical times. Similarly, modern human teeth in other regions of the world show similar Pb isotopic ratios to modern European teeth reflecting the Pb imports. The specific pattern of human Pb exposure allows us to use the Pb isotopic signal recorded in the skeleton as a geo-referencing tool. As historical European teeth show a distinct Pb signal, we can identify early European skeletal remains in the New World and likely elsewhere. In modern forensic investigations we can discriminate to some extent Eastern Europeans from Western and Northern Europeans. Australians can be identified to some extent in any region in the world, although there is some overlap with Western European individuals. Lead isotopes can be used to easily identify foreigners in the USA, as modern USA teeth are distinct from any other region of the world. By analogy, USA individuals can be identified virtually in any other region of the world.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)861-870
    Number of pages10
    JournalScience of the Total Environment
    Publication statusPublished - 15 Aug 2014


    • Human Pb exposure
    • Pb as geo-referencing tool
    • Pb isotopes in human teeth


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