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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Lead in Mexican Pottery Threatens Children's Health

Air Date: Week of

B.B. Crouse reports from Mexico City on lead-glazed pottery and its impact upon children. Tougher lead laws by the Mexican government and substitutes for the lead glaze may help to eliminate the problem.


CURWOOD: The element lead is one of the most potent natural toxins, and it is most toxic to those who are least able to understand its dangers: children. As a neurotoxin, lead has its strongest effect on growing brains, those of children under the age of six. And research shows that even small amounts of lead in young children can reduce intelligence levels, and increase learning disabilities and school dropout rates. Here in the U-S, many children are poisoned by lead dust from deteriorating paint. But in Mexico, children face an even more pervasive threat. Researchers say as many as half of all Mexican children have dangerous levels of lead in their bodies because their families cook with lead-glazed pottery. Bebe Crouse has our story.

(Sound of restaurant - dishes clattering)

CROUSE: For 500 years, the people of Mexico have used pottery to cook, serve, and store food. Some cooks swear their well-used ceramic pots are crucial to the rich flavor of Mexican cuisine. The fact is some of that flavor is probably the taste of poisonous lead that has leached out of the pots' glaze. Lead-glazed pots are crucial to many Mexicans. Without access to ovens, millions here cook everything over an open flame, and low-fire, lead-glazed pots are the only durable and cheap cookware that can stand up to that heat. Dr. Cristina Cortinas is investigating the problem of lead for Mexico's National Institute of Ecology. She says it's a particularly Mexican dilemma.

CORTINAS: Nosotros, como Usted sabe, somos un pais con una tradicion artisanal que era tarde la epoca prehispanica . . . (fade under translator)
TRANSLATOR: Our ceramic tradition goes back to pre-Hispanic times, with a richness and diversity seen in few other parts of the world. And though we've changed to a much more demanding standard for lead in pottery, we must reach it without destroying this tradition.

CROUSE: But while the government searches for a solution, millions of Mexicans are being exposed to dangerous levels of lead. And the most vulnerable of those exposed are children. Dr. Stephen Rothenburg of the National Institute of Perinatology.

ROTHENBURG: Women who use this type of pottery in their home, who are pregnant, give birth to children who have almost 70 percent more lead in their blood at the moment of birth that children born to women who don't use this stuff.

(Doctor's office sound)

CROUSE: Dr. Rothenburg is conducting long-term lead studies on several hundred Mexican children, among them, four-year-old Perlita Ugalde.

(Little girl talking with woman: "¿No tiene los rompe cabezas de Mickey Mouse? Woman: "No." Little girl: "Yo, si. . . ." Fade under)

CROUSE: On the day she was born, Perlita had as much lead in her blood as someone would normally accumulate in a lifetime. And so, ever since her birth, she has been put through a regular battery of tests to check her mental and physical development.

(Sound of child playing with blocks; woman's voice: "Cuentame todos esos." Child: "Uno, dos, tres, cuatro, cinco, seis, siete, ocho, nueve . . ." Fade under)

CROUSE: The good news is that Perlita is developing at an average rate. The bad is that her blood lead levels have gone up since her last visit. Nearly half the children in the study were born with lead levels at or above 10 micrograms per deciliter of blood - a level where Dr. Rothenburg says damage occurs.

ROTHENBURG: If, in Mexico, 50 percent of the kids are exposed to lead levels of over than 10 micrograms per deciliter for much of their growing years, these kids are not going to develop as a population to their full potential.

CROUSE: And that, he believes, threatens the development and vitality of the entire society. But he also realizes that getting rid of leaded pottery has impacts as well. More than half a million Mexicans earn a living making pottery. If the country's tough new lead standards were rigorously enforced, many of them would be put out of work, and a lot of people would be left with no pots. Despite the new regulations, the Mexican government has not made finding a solution a top priority. So far, it has invested only $30,000 dollars in the search for new glazes. but that doesn't mean there is no hope in sight. In a small workshop just north of Mexico City, potter Mario Covarrubias believes he may have found a safe alternative to leaded glaze.

(Sound of kiln open)

CROUSE: Unbolting the door of a roaring, red-hot kiln, Covarrubias lifts out a small casserole dish that still glows with heat. It's the type you would find in any Mexican kitchen. What's different is that the glaze contains absolutely no lead.

COVARRUBIAS: No he descubierta nada, yo . . . (fade under translator)
TRANSLATOR: I haven't discovered anything. I've just studied the literature and gained the knowledge of something that has existed since the 14th and 15th centuries.

CROUSE: By substituting lithium for lead, Covarrubias gets a hard, shiny glaze at low temperature. Researchers at US glaze companies say lithium poses no inherent dangers, but that it can double costs. Even so, Covarrubias' pots are being tested for safety. In the meantime, Mexico's strict new standards are widely ignored.

COVARRUBIAS: Esta norma, nadie la respecta porque hoy por hoy, nadia ha dado al alfarerro. . . (fade under translator)
TRANSLATOR: No one respects the standard, because no one has given potters a glaze that can meet it. I don't understand how you can have a law that regulates lead in pottery, but which doesn't regulate the factories that make the glazes.

CROUSE: Covarrubias thinks that if the government banned leaded glaze, it would force companies to develop an alternative. Dr. Cortinas doesn't think a ban would produce a solution, although she acknowledged that the government's current efforts are not successful either. Researchers at a couple of big US glaze companies have asked for a copy of Covarrubias' formula. They think he might be on to something. Whether he is or not won't be known until many more tests for safety and durability are finished. In the meantime, Mexican potters are left to hope that sometime soon, someone will find a solution that preserves their livelihoods without endangering lives. For Living on Earth, this is Bebe Crouse in Mexico City.



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