What may have contributed to the fall of the Holy Roman Empire 15 centuries ago has suddenly emerged as a concern in contemporary Washington. That new-old problem is lead, which people can unwittingly ingest with food and beverages. Now as then, physicians say, lead can build up in humans and, they say, can cause retardation and serious physical ailments, and can result in death.
During the centuries in which the vigor of early Rome turned to dissolution, Romans unwittingly ingested lead when they drank beverages from pottery pitchers and water storage vessels. Harmful physical and mental effects followed, which sometimes have been blamed in part for the downfall of the empire.
Today, experts say, the problem in the United States lies primarily with some imported ceramic dinnerware: It can be improperly made so that the lead in its surface glaze comes off and is consumed along with the food that the dish, pitcher, or plate holds.
Activists, a congressional subcommittee, and the Food and Drug Administration are seeking to alert Americans who purchase imported dinnerware either in the US or abroad to be aware that seemingly attractive items may be improperly produced. Activists also seek to pressure the FDA into tightening its standard for permissible lead.
In the past half-century various organizations and federal agencies have worked to lower the exposure of Americans to lead. The amount of it in food cans has been restricted, gasoline that contains lead is being phased out, and lead has been removed from interior house paints. Consequently, FDA commissioner Frank Young says, ``the levels of lead in people's bodies have been reduced.'' But activists say more should be done, starting with the ceramic problem.
Commissioner Young says ceramicware produced in the US rarely poses a problem now.
Since adoption of lead standards in ceramicware 17 years ago, most domestically produced dinnerware is adjudged perfectly safe, although hard questions are being asked about one US item - some drinking glasses bearing decals that are handed out by gas stations.
``We do find problems, however,'' Young says, ``with products produced abroad.'' About 60 percent of dinnerware sold in the US is imported; in 1986 nearly 900 million pieces of dinnerware were imported.
The most serious difficulties are found with dinnerware from developing nations where, as in Mexico, is it frequently produced by ``often primitive'' methods in small cottage-industry facilities, according to the FDA. (In 1984, the agency noted problems with some dinnerware from Taiwan, Italy, Hong Kong, and Portugal.)
Inadequacies in either the manufacturing or firing part of the process can enable the lead to be leached into food or beverage, particularly if the food is acidic, as in citrus juices or tomato sauces.
By contrast Japan, the largest exporter of ceramicware to the US, ``has instituted effective quality control'' procedures, Young says, and therefore little problem is believed to exist with its products.
Young says that in fiscal year 1987 the FDA, in a random survey, found accessive lead levels in 4.4 percent of the ceramicware imported into the US.
At the same time the House subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations says that in the last fiscal year the FDA found excessive lead levels in 128 of the 811 batches of imported ceramicware that it tested. The FDA that year required 20 firms to recall imported pottery that was being sold in US stores.