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Lead Poisoning Study: 300 mothers and their newborns

In 2015, Pure Earth worked with the National Institute of Public Health (INSP) in Mexico on the first-ever effort to detect and measure exposure to lead poisoning at a state level in the country. The study was carried out in the state of Morelos to measure the blood lead levels of 300 mothers and their newborns. This was how we discovered Baby X.

In a late-night email labelled “URGENT,” a nurse wrote to inform us that they had discovered a newborn baby with a blood lead level of 40 micrograms per deciliter (µg/dL)! The CDC recommends health intervention at levels above 5 µg/dL–the newborn was eight times over that limit.

We immediately adopted the case of Baby X as a priority

Lead poisoning occurs when toxic lead builds up in the body. In the case of newborn babies, toxic lead from the mother is passed to the baby through the placenta.

Exposure to lead is an extremely serious health issue. In adults it causes damage to the nervous and reproductive systems, as well as the kidneys. In children, it can cause permanent brain damage and other developmental issues. We had no time to lose. In order for Baby X to have a chance at developing normally to his full potential, we needed to lower his blood lead levels as soon as possible.

So how did Baby X and his mom get exposed to so much lead?

There are a number of main sources of lead poisoning around the world. The informal recycling of used lead-acid (car) batteries is one of them, but in Mexico, the leading source of exposure is the use of traditional pottery made with lead-based glazes.

Traditional lead-glazed pottery on sale on the streets of Mexico. These are used in many homes and restaurants across the country. Lead from the pots leach into the food prepared or served in them.

These beautiful pieces of pottery are used to cook and serve food in many homes and restaurants across Mexico. Lead in the pottery glaze mixes with acidic foods–like coffee, chili peppers, tomatoes and lemons–and quickly enters the bodies of anyone consuming the food. Up to 20% of Mexicans have elevated blood level levels. Baby X, his mother and grandmother were among them.

A quick and easy solution

We tested the pottery used by Baby X’s family and confirmed that they contained lead. The family cooked meals in their leaded pottery more than five times a week. To counteract the problem and start lowering Baby X’s blood lead level, Pure Earth changed the family’s pots–the new pots were made the same traditional way by artisans but using a lead-free glaze. They looked and functioned just like the family’s old pots.

In the months that followed, Baby X’s blood lead levels began dropping, sometimes by 5 points a month, sometimes more. After a year, Baby X and his mother showed a 90% decrease in their blood lead levels.

Baby X, no longer a baby, receiving follow up testing.

Baby X’s motor skills have improved and we are happy to report that he has hit all his developmental milestones. He is now a happy, healthy kindergartener.

With just a small change in the family’s pots, we were able to made a big difference in Baby X’s development and growth.

Help for all Baby Xs

Pure Earth has been working with local authorities in Mexico to address the issue of lead in pottery since 2008. Our Barro Aprobado project is actively raising awareness about the dangers of leaded pottery, and promoting the use and production of lead-free pottery. Efforts include the training of artisanal potters in lead-free methods, and working with restaurants and consumers to demand and use lead-free pottery.

Since we encountered Baby X in Tlayacapan, Morelos, where Pure Earth launched Barro Aprobado, our work has expanded into the state of Puebla, where we have now conducted three lead-free workshops for about 60 potters in Acteopan, Puebla city, and Metepec. Pure Earth has also established a working relationship with the state institute for artisans (Instituto de Investigación y Fomento de las Artesanías) to reach even more potters nationwide. In Santa Fe de la Laguna in Michoacán state, three new groups of potters are getting ready to go completely lead free. See the Barro Aprobado website for a growing list of lead-free artisans, restaurants, and stores.

Learn more:

Photo Essay Mexico: Lead Exposure From Traditional Pottery

Barro Aprobado Lead-Free Potter Wins Prize – Q&A With Doña Rosario

Dinner Served On 960 Pieces Of Lead-Free Pottery Sends Urgent Message Across Mexico

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