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What Is Lead Acetate?

By Ray Hawk
Updated: May 17, 2024

Lead acetate is a soluble, white, crystalline compound that has been produced since Roman times as a form of sweetener by boiling grape juice in lead pots, and it is commonly referred to as lead sugar. Pope Clement II is known to have died from poisoning by lead sugar in October of 1047, as well as potentially other notable historic figures such as Ludwig van Beethoven. In fact, it is thought that much of the Roman aristocracy was poisoned by regularly consuming saba, a wine-based syrupy sweetener made of lead acetate. Though lead's toxicity is widely known today, lead acetate is still used in cosmetics in some countries, in hair coloring products, and to create lead acetate paper.

Common industrial uses for lead acetate include incorporation into toners in the photochemical industry, and as an activation agent in the mining of sulfide ores. Though it is no longer allowed in cosmetics products in western nations, its use in hair dyes as a color additive is still widespread and has been allowed in these products for over 40 years. Human trials of prolonged use of hair dye containing lead acetate have found no increased levels of lead in the blood stream. It is seen as an effective additive in hair dye formulas, as lead acetate will bind to proteins in human hair, thereby making the coloring process longer lasting.

Other names for lead acetate include plumbous salt, salt of Saturn, and Lead (II) acetate or lead ethanoate. It is considered highly toxic to the unborn, and can cross the placenta causing fetal mortality. It is also known to be deadly to fish and all aquatic organisms if introduced into the water supply.

Handling of the chemical must be done with protective gloves, safety goggles, clothing, and barrier creams on exposed skin, with women of child-bearing age restricted from exposure as much as possible. Since it is highly soluble, it can dissolve in water, producing toxic and corrosive acetic acid vapor that has a slight vinegar smell to it. Emergency personnel who must deal with lead acetate spills are required to wear a breathing apparatus.

Production quantities of lead acetate worldwide are hard to determine due to both its legacy of being produced over many centuries. It is also increasingly restricted. It is made in a variety of nations from India to the UK and the US.

About Mechanics is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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