In 79 A.D., a catastrophic volcanic eruption rained ash, rocks, and death down on Roman cities in southern Italy. Pyroclastic flows, superheated gaseous clouds measuring 700°C (1300°F) swept down the sides of Mt. Vesuvius (1), vaporized everything in their paths, including the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, and every living creature inhabiting them and the surrounding countryside. This area of Italy is where my people are from. In fact, right next to the region of Campania, where Mt. Vesuvius rests, is Basilicata and its capitol city, Potenza. One day, I think I’ll go there and become their queen. Paesano!
This article is not directly about the infamous eruption, but about the bones and teeth of its victims—and fluorine (F), atomic number 9, and a periodic table element that is extremely reactive such that several people died when first trying to isolate it in the early 1800s. It also has the disconcerting characteristic of making everything it touches burst into flames (2).
Still, humans use fluorine every day as fluoride (3). You might brush your teeth with a toothpaste containing sodium fluoride (NaF) or live in a city that deliberately adds trace amounts of NaF to the drinking water. Why? Fluoride/Fluorine in minute quantities protects against tooth decay (4) by slowing demineralization, speeding up the process of remineralization, and providing antimicrobial protection (5). It also strengthens bone (6).
It turns out Mt. Vesuvius was naturally charging the water in the surrounding towns with fluoride (and still is), and the people of Pompeii benefitted. As more work has been done on the bones of plaster-casted volcanic victims, anthropologists found that Pompeiians had seriously great teeth (7).
So, if a little’s good, more must be better, right? Wrong. Too much ingested fluoride weakens the structure of bone, pits and stains teeth, and causes linear hypoplastic furrows along the enamel (8). Which are exactly what scientists found when they analyzed over 70 human victims from the city of Herculaneum (9), a resort town for rich Romans that was also buried under the Vesuvian eruption. The level of fluoride was so high in these individuals that people as young as fifteen had the thinning fragile bones of someone closer in age to their grandparents.
And that’s why Italians drink so much bottle mineral water and wine. Kidding.