A valuable tool for consumers of Mexican pottery was unveiled January 25 in Mexico City when Blacksmith Institute and its government partner, Fondo Nacional para el Fomento de las Artesanias (FONART), held a joint press conference attracting all major Mexican media. Helpful for individuals as well as the pottery trade, the new Spanish language allow consumers to locate artisans who produce lead-free wares.

Jointly presenting, Blacksmith President Richard Fuller and FONART Director Rafaela Luft Davalos also issued a 40-page report on the status of this dangerous home-based Mexican industry. They spoke of important groundwork laid for environmental and medical surveys to take place across Mexico.  Since early 2009, Blacksmith and FONART have been working together to diminish lead poisoning in the country's ceramics communities. The project is ongoing.

The press conference included two demonstrations dramatizing the issues.  In a graphic example of the risks of lead exposure, two blood samples were taken, one from an artisan, who had stopped using lead glazes eight months earlier, and the other from an attending reporter.  The potter had a BLD of 33.5 mcg/dl, while the reporter had only a 5.5 mcd/dl. 

And when Mario Covarrubias, FONART program manager, asked an audience member to distinguish between examples of lead glazed and non-lead glazed pottery--the wrong choice was made, negating a common fallacy.  Some artisans incorrectly believe lead glazes have greater luminosity, and consequently, are more highly valued by consumers.

Blacksmith's first-ever systematic analysis of soil samples in and around Mexican homes to determine environmental contamination has fused together once disparate groups. The importance of these partnerships with local artisanal groups and enforcement organizations, including the government health ministry, "cannot be overstated," assembled reporters were told. Previously there had been only limited success in converting artisans to lead-free glazes.

A case in point, Alejandro Estrella Sanchez, executive director of the Mexican Secretariat of Health, and Victor Cornelio Garcia, a potter who has benefited from the project, participated in the press conference.


Lead-based glazes have been used by Mexican artisans since the 16th century when they were introduced by the Spanish. And beginning in the 1970s, industrial-produced lead oxide cut the price of glazes, expanding their use. Coupled with male migration to the United States, more economically marginalized Mexican women have engaged in this dangerous home-based industry.

An estimated 50,000 people come in contact with dangerous amounts of lead during the creation of glazed pottery, typically testing three-to-five times higher than the international standard. Over a lifetime this can mean an IQ drop of 10 to 20 points.

Further, about 30 percent of Mexico's urban population use glazed ceramics for cooking and food storage. And because of the popularity in the national diet of acidic foods like chili peppers, tomatoes, and lemons, the lead contained in glazes is more likely to pass into the human body. Consequent blood-lead concentrations are 30 to 40 percent higher in families using glazed ceramics.

But where the Blacksmith program--community education, blood monitoring, high temperature kiln construction, remediation of existing lead--has been implemented, blood-lead levels have dropped by half in three months.

Press Conference Highlights

On the education front, publication and widespread distribution of a brochure on lead hazards, transmission, and hygienic precautions along with public symposia and press coverage, raised local awareness. Case in point, during FONART's second national conference on producing lead-free pottery, 36 artisans using lead glazes came forward to request blood testing for their families and remediation of their workshops. They joined the ranks of over 100 already persuaded artisans who had switched to safe, lead-free glazes.

Blacksmith trained FONART in the proper use of lead sampling equipment, performance of scientific and medical tests, and best practices in reaching out to vulnerable communities as well as helped refine their health survey techniques and add toxic threats to their educational programs and conferences. Importantly, Blacksmith donated testing equipment, five complete LeadCare sets costing $10,000-previously FONART had none. Blacksmith also supplied handheld x-ray equipment and training for field cleanup technicians and local partners.

Blacksmith's ongoing support has helped leverage significant resources into kiln construction that encourages artisans to convert to lead-free glazes, ending contamination. FONART constructed one kiln in 2009 at a cost of $10,000, while in 2010 that number increased to nine. This year FONART will construct 90 kilns at a cost of one million dollars--a 10-fold increase.

Blacksmith carried out 10 remediations of workshops and houses over the past two years, typically involving removal of contaminated soil and covering the area with concrete, paint, or other material; power washing contaminated surfaces as well as vaccuming, scrubbing and sweeping, among other activities. Part of ongoing local capacity building, Blacksmith prepared remediation guidelines for FONART in 2010 and will work with the organization in 2011 to remediate each remaining contaminated house and an estimated 20 to 40 workshops.

Full report (in Spanish) available here

"El Universal" press conference coverage