From the Archives: Deck Log Entry # 6 Silver-Age Chemistry 101: Sometimes Lead is "Ert"

“O.K., class, settle down, and let’s get started. We have a lot of material to cover to-day. Biff, put away the cell phone. I’m sure the young lady can survive not hearing your voice for an hour.”

“Sorry, professor.”

“Now, I assume you all did your reading assignment----“

“You know what they say about assuming, sir . . . .”

“Pretty much the same thing as when you assume you’ll be passing this course, Dexter. To-day’s subject is ‘Elements in the DC Universe’. Now, who can tell me about lead? Kristen?”

“Lead. Chemical symbol Pb, from the Latin word plumbum. Atomic number 82, atomic weight 207.2. It’s a soft, malleable, and corrosion-resistant metal, with a melting point of 621.43 degrees Fahrenheit, sometimes found free in nature, but usually obtained through smelting and refining of ores. It is the only substance that can protect Superman and Supergirl from kryptonite radiation. It’s also the only substance that their X-ray vision cannot see through. However, Ultra Boy’s ultra-vision can see through it and melt it, too.”

“Very good. Now----“

“Ooooh . . . ooooh, professorrrrrr . . . !

“And the reason for the bad Horshak impression, Argyle?”

“She left out that lead is deadly to Mon-El, sir.”

“And I’m sure you’ll be glad to tell us all about it.”

“Well---um---er . . . . “

“Go ahead, Argyle. We’re waiting with bated breath.”

“Uh . . . Mon-El first crash-landed on Earth during Superboy’s time, and he . . . uh . . . had amnesia and Superboy thought he was his big brother, but then Superboy got suspicious and tricked him by painting some lead balls to look like green kryptonite and when Mon-El got all weak from them, Superboy thought he was faking, but he really wasn’t faking ‘cause people from Daxam---that’s where Mon-El was really from---really are affected by lead. The lead radiations were deadly to Mon-El and he wouldn’t get better even if Superboy took the lead away so Superboy put him in the Phantom Zone.”

“Correct, Argyle. Every day, it seems, brings its small surprises.”

“But, professor-----“

“Yes, Drew?”

“I thought lead was what radioactive elements like uranium became after they decomposed and became inert. So how can lead have any ‘radiations’?”

“Good point. But let me clear up a misconception first: the original story about Mon-El didn’t say anything about lead ‘radiations’. He seemed to be stricken simply by the proximity of lead. It is true, though, that later writers did insist that Mon-El was affected by ‘lead radiations’, so Drew’s question is essentially valid.”

“If lead doesn’t have any radiations, then how did it affect Mon-El. Wouldn’t he have to touch it or something?”

“Very good, Heather. And Mon-El didn’t touch the lead in the original story. So, class, where does that take us?”

“Maybe all he had to do was get near it to get sick.”

“But that raises another question, Biff. In Superboy’s day, lead was commonly present. In ashtrays, paperweights, signposts----“

“And there’s lead in pencils.”

“No, what we call ‘lead’ in pencils is actually graphite. But in the 1930’s, there was also lead in paint and in the exhaust fumes from automobiles. It would have been virtually impossible for Mon-El to not have come close to lead before Superboy exposed him to those lead cannon balls. So why wasn’t Mon-El affected earlier?”

“Maybe it took a lot of lead, professor, like in those cannon balls.”

“That’s one possibility. Any others?”

“Maybe it had to, y’know, like build up. Each time he was close to lead, it affected him a little more, but he didn’t notice it until that last time, when Superboy dropped all those lead balls around him.”

“Hmmmm . . . accumulation. Yes, Dexter, that’s a possibility, also. Arsenic works that way in human beings. If a person receives a minute amount, he’ll barely notice it, but it will stay in his system, and with each succeeding dosage, the effects build, until it reaches a lethal level. But, at first, the victim will only feel a little sick, like he has a bad cold.”

“Yeah, but a normal person has to get the arsenic inside him somehow. It won’t bother him if he just stands near it. I still say Mon-El had to come in contact with the lead somehow, otherwise it shouldn’t have bothered him.”

“Maybe he breathed it in. From the cars’ exhaust fumes. The professor said they used leaded gas in those days.

“Man, didn’t they care about the environment back then?”

“Hey, that was the 1930’s! They had, like what, a hundred cars in the whole country?”

“Getting back to the point, Heather is correct---there had to be some form of physical transfer, from the lead to Mon-El, in order for there to be any reaction. Since Mon-El was never shown to have touched any lead, doesn’t it make sense that he would have to come into contact with it in a way we couldn’t see?”

“I know!”


Lead dust! Lead is a soft metal and if lead scrapes against a hard surface, it produces lead dust. Even rubbing or scraping lead-based paint can produce lead dust. And lead dust is invisible lots of times. Maybe Mon-El breathed in a bunch of lead dust!”

“But when did any lead get scraped?”

“Shut up, Argyle!

“You shut up!”

“No, you shut up! Those lead balls broke up when they hit the ground, dweeb. All that pounding against the ground must have made, like, a cloud of lead dust and Mon-El breathed it in and got sick. Kristen’s right.”

“About that story, maybe. But there were other stories where Mon-El was affected just by being near lead. No touching it. No scraping it. Just ‘cause it was close. What about those stories, huh, jockbreath?”

“Argyle! Biff! Since both of you seem to have so much passion for the subject, you can each write a 5,000-word paper on the refining process of lead, and cite your references. And there better be more than just World Book Encyclopædia. Now, how do the rest of you like Kristen’s theory?”

“It’s, like, brilliant. It also explains why Mon-El wasn’t affected by all the other lead he was around. There wasn’t any lead dust until those lead cannon balls dropped.”


“Works for me!”

“And what about Argyle’s objection, that it doesn’t fit later stories?”

“ - - - - “

“ - - - - “

“O.K., let’s keep Kristen’s theory in our pocket for the moment, and take a look at another property of lead---one which we discarded a bit too quickly. Lead radiations. Does the phrase ‘radioactive isotopes of lead’ ring any bells?”


“Page 134 of your reading assignment.”

“But, sir, how can lead be radioactive? I thought Drew said that radioactive elements become lead, and lead isn’t radioactive.”

“True, lead is usually inert. But sometimes, it is ‘ert’. There are four stable isotopes of lead, the end products of naturally occurring radioactive elements, such as uranium or thorium. However, there are twenty-seven radioactive isotopes of lead, created during the transition of uranium to stable lead. Most of these radioactive isotopes of lead have half-lives of only a few minutes, but one isotope---lead-210, sometimes called ‘new lead’---has a half-life of 22.2 years. That means it hangs around for awhile, long enough that we all have probably come into contact with it at one time or another.”

“So how much lead is this radioactive stuff?”

“Well, nearly all mined lead contains some lead-210, but fortunately it’s never in more than just trace amounts, so really, there’s no more danger from it than from the luminous dial on your watch. But the point is that there is such a thing as ‘lead radiations’, slight though they may be. Now, let’s theorise a bit. We know that the inhabitants of Mon-El’s home world, Daxam, have a high sensitivity to lead. The fact that they thrived as a race suggests that naturally occurring lead is not as prevalent there as on Earth. In fact, I should think, there’s not much there, at all. But what is there is deadly to Daxamites. This is where we pull Kristen’s theory out of our pocket.”

“How’s that, professor?”

“Because, as far as it goes, your theory is correct---direct contact with any lead, stable or not, is injurious to a Daxamite. This includes breathing it in as lead dust. However, if it is inert lead, a Daxamite has to touch it to be affected. On the other hand, because of their extreme sensitivity to lead, we can presume that people from Daxam are affected by radiations from lead-210 to a much greater degree than Earth people are. Lead radiations might very well be as deadly to a Daxamite as direct contact.”

“So when Mon-El came to Earth, even though lead was all over the place, he wasn’t affected by it until he happened to come into direct contact with it when those lead cannon balls broke apart and he breathed in the lead dust.”

Or, Heather, it might have been that Mon-El was stricken by indirect contact. The lead cannon balls might have happened to contain some lead-210---smelting doesn’t remove it.”

“And that would explain the other stories, where Mon-El was affected by lead, even though he didn’t touch it. ‘Cause it was that lead-210 stuff that gave off lead radiations.”

“That’s it in a nutshell, Dexter. I see we’re almost out of time . . . any questions? Yes, Argyle?”

“Will there be any homework?”

Views: 445

Comment by Philip Portelli on April 8, 2010 at 12:52pm
It seemed to be implied that lead, isotopes or not, affected NON-powered Daxamites, which is how they know to avoid it. Maybe Mon-El's new "super" status delayed his reaction or it took a lot of lead to poison him. Also lead had a permanant effect on him, unlike kryptonite on Superboy. That's more toxic than radioactive. It could be lead isotopes strickened Mon but it was also established that any lead could weaken him after his anti-lead serum wore off. This serum was amazing since not only did it restore his health, it made retain his powers under a red sun!! He could have been the Superman of Daxam without that nasty "planet blowing up" stuff to depress him!
Comment by Eric L. Sofer on April 9, 2010 at 7:47am
I wish to submit a theory. In the first Mon-El story, not only is Mon-El exposed to lead, but he is also exposed to Green Kryptonite... and a later Legion story indicated that Green K is part of the serum that protects Mon-El from lead.

THEORY: Green Kryptonite - an exceedingly rare element (unless you believe all those 60s Superman and Justice League stories - but let's set that aside for now) can counter the effect of lead on a Daxamite.

Thus,it can seemingly defy the "can't be cured" situation when Daxamites are exposed to lead - but because of its rarity, it likely was never found on Daxam, and thus was viable a solution to lead poisoning as wishing on a star would be.

Commander, any thoughts on this analysis? I do hope to avoid clapping erasers after class...

I remain,
Eric L. Sofer
The Silver Age Fogey
Comment by Commander Benson on April 9, 2010 at 8:39am
"THEORY: Green Kryptonite---an exceedingly rare element---can counter the effect of lead on a Daxamite."

Oh, I agree with you 100%, my friend. Mainly because Mort Weisinger beat you to it.

If you will recall, Brainiac 5 created the serum which allowed Mon-el to pemanently leave the Phantom Zone in "The Secret of the Mystery Legionnaire", from Adventure Comics # 305 (Feb., 1963). A close reading of that tale shows that nothing was said about green kryptonite being the crucial ingredient which made the anti-lead serum long-lasting.

The idea that kryptonite was the necessary element was not established until three years later.

Superboy (Giant Annual) # 129 (May, 1966) reprinted the debut of Mon-El---"Superboy's Big Brother", from Superboy # 89 (Jun., 1961). That giant annual also included a one-page text piece, "How Mon-El Left the Phantom Zone".

Part of that text piece referred to these two panels from "Superboy's Big Brother" . . . .

The pertinent portion of the text read:

Saturn Girl, however, had created a serum---called XY-4---which enabled Mon-El to resist the deadly effects of lead for a few minutes---long enough to defeat the Luthor robot. Mon-El was voted into the Legion before being returned to the Phantom Zone. But Saturn Girl's serum had still lacked the one necessary ingredient to make if effective for any length of time.

Have you guessed yet what that element was? Turn to page 9 of "Superboy's Big Brother". There you will find the Boy of Steel trying Kryptonite on the sleeping Mon-El, only to find that he is not affected. Yet, Superboy himself is shielded from the deadly rays by lead---and the lead does not harm Mon-El! This then was the element that Superman never used in his attempts to find a cure for Mon-El---Kryptonite! For just as lead can shield him from Kryptonite, so Kryptonite can protect Mon-El from lead!

It was from this point on that the Legion stories occasionally mentioned that Mon-El's anti-lead serum contained kryptonite (e.g., Adventure Comics # 375 [Dec., 1968]).

So, yeah, Fogey, I'm on board with your analysis.
Comment by Philip Portelli on April 9, 2010 at 9:39am
Yet Superboy didn't expose Mon-El to green kryptonite until he suspected him of "lying" to him. He must have been near lead as soon as he entered the Kent home. While I'm not argueing that Green K staves off lead poisoning, it couldn't have been protecting him all that time, especially since its radiation was blocked by the lead itself!

Lead HAD to exist on Daxam, how else would they know how deadly it is to them! (Metal Man Lead: Daxam's Public Enemy #1). Maybe at one point in their history, some friendly Trommites (Element Lad's people) transmutes all of Daxam's lead to something else! I submit that, though Daxam had lead, it must have been extremely rare or the population wouldn't have survived.

BTW, you had to feel sorry for Mon in his first appearance, Superboy alternated from elation to paranoia REALLY quickly. He gave wild theories to support the conclusions that he wanted to be true while Mon said NOTHING to justify them then accused Mon of deceiving him for making him think up those theories! Makes you wonder why Mon considers him such a good friend!
Comment by Philip Portelli on April 12, 2010 at 10:07am
Also, for a fatal, permanant reaction, lead was used against Mon-El several times in "Adventure" #314 (N'63), #360 (S'67) and #370 (Jl'68). I know the last one was false but all three incidents occur after Mon's anti-lead serum wore off. The effect is that Mon loses his powers or weakens much like kryptonite to Superboy but that deadly consequence is never mentioned. My theory is that prolonged exposure to yellow sun rays bolstered Mon's resistance to the lead poisoning though he had to take the serum afterwards to prevent him from dying. He always had to take the serum every 48 hours or his suffering would begin again!
Comment by Fraser Sherman on March 23, 2017 at 5:21pm

Nice job, Commander (came here via your link from the kryptonite story)

Comment by Commander Benson on March 23, 2017 at 7:03pm

Thank you, sir.  I did a tremendous amount of research into lead and radioactivity for this entry.  Several years ago, a couple by the name of Jo and Terri-Anne Sanning managed a very comprehensive web site on the Silver-Age Legion of Super-Heroes; one of its more frequent posters had a degree in physics, and he---like you, following a thread of discussion on the site---came across this article.  He informed me that, except for one cosmetic error in the nomenclature of the "new lead" isotope, my article was scientifically accurate.

That pleased me very much, especially considering that most of my scientific knowledge came from viewing Watch Mr. Wizard as a kid.


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