BACKGROUND: The study of ancient skeletal pathologies can be adopted as a key tool in assessing and tracing several diseases from past to present times. Skeletal fluorosis, a chronic metabolic bone and joint disease causing excessive ossification and joint ankylosis, has been only rarely considered in differential diagnoses of palaeopathological lesions. Even today its early stages are misdiagnosed in endemic areas.
METHODOLOGY/PRINCIPAL FINDINGS: Endemic fluorosis induced by high concentrations of fluoride in water and soils is a major health problem in several countries, particularly in volcanic areas. Here we describe for the first time the features of endemic fluorosis in the Herculaneum victims of the 79 AD eruption, resulting from long-term exposure to high levels of environmental fluoride which still occur today.
CONCLUSIONS/SIGNIFICANCE: Our observations on morphological, radiological, histological and chemical skeletal and dental features of this ancient population now suggest that in this area fluorosis was already endemic in Roman times. This evidence merged with currently available epidemiologic data reveal for the Vesuvius area population a permanent fluoride health hazard, whose public health and socio-economic impact is currently underestimated. The present guidelines for fluoridated tap water might be reconsidered accordingly, particularly around Mt Vesuvius and in other fluoride hazard areas with high natural fluoride levels.