Read the original Chicago Tribune article here, which talks about the life changing efforts of Aid to Artisans recent program in Mexico.
"Changing deadly artisan customs" Mexican artisans giving up lead -- for the sake of families and consumers By Oscar Avila | Chicago Tribune correspondent January 20, 2008 Copyright © 2008, Chicago Tribune
SANTA FE DE LA LAGUNA, Mexico - As Nicolas Fermin tends to the clay vases and pots in his kiln, he is keeping alive the artisan traditions that the Purepecha Indians have built for generations along the shores of Lake Patzcuaro.
But about a decade ago, Fermin's family inherited another legacy of this art form.
Pregnant with their second child, Fermin's wife, Maria del Rosario Lucas, suffered a miscarriage like so many women in her community. Warned that the lead glaze of their pottery might be to blame, they tested their toddler, Dulce. Her lead levels were off the charts.
As U.S. consumers worry about lead in imports from China and elsewhere, some communities just beyond America's borders struggle with the dangers of lead in the products they create. Here in this picturesque corner of Mexico, a non-profit group called Barro Sin Plomo (Clay Without Lead) is trying to persuade the Purepecha people and other Mexican producers to undo their deadly customs.
In tandem with a separate Mexican government effort, the program has helped Fermin and hundreds of artisans, mainly in western Michoacan, start the process of switching from lead to alternative glazes.
Progress has been slow, but their products now are being marketed as lead-free to tourists and U.S. vendors, including shops in Illinois.
"Our people say we owe our lives to lead. Because of lead, we send our children to school or build our homes," said Fermin, 46, as he drew designs on a vase with a pencil. "But after this crash in our lives, we knew we had to do something different."
Crafts dating back centuries
Change hasn't come easily for communities whose handicrafts date to the 1500s.
A drive through the villages dotting the lake reveals families selling hand-carved wood furniture, guitars and masks, in addition to the pottery of Santa Fe.
For generations, potters have used lead to achieve a shiny glaze that appealed to buyers. But the North American Free Trade Agreement placed new curbs on importing items with lead from Mexico.
The Mexican government launched a campaign to wean artisans off lead but, from 1991 to 2001, only about 20 potters nationwide made the switch, said Marta Turok, an anthropologist who directs social programs for the National Fund for the Promotion of Handicrafts, a Mexican government agency.
The potters resisted, even though nearly everyone had a friend or relative devastated by the effects of lead. Almost all potters work in their home, exposing their families to lead dust. Sometimes children drink water infused with lead residue.
The Orange County Register newspaper in 2004 tested 92 children in Santa Fe and found that all but five had lead poisoning. The toxicity of lead can harm nearly every organ in the body, causing neurological damage in children and kidney damage and infertility in adults, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"I tell the artisans, lead doesn't kill you overnight. It attacks your kidneys, it attacks your bones, your womb, your brain," Turok said. "Then, it all catches up with you."
The Mexican government eventually teamed with the Connecticut-based non-profit Aid to Artisans, which secured funding from foundations and the U.S. government. They launched Barro Sin Plomo in 2003.
Aid to Artisans worked with U.S. potters to develop an alternative glaze that would replicate the aesthetic benefits of lead without the harm. The substitute did not function well in the same temperatures, so consultants had to retrofit ovens.
Herlinda Morales, 38, said her cousin had a baby born with a deformed arm, and tests found she had high lead levels too. Even so, Morales' parents resisted her eventual switch from a technique that had been in their family for generations.
"It's tough to change, yes, but it's for our own good," she said.
Project organizers now say they must win over new participants by proving that lead-free pottery makes economic sense. Morales, for example, has brothers working illegally in Oregon and says her family must subsist on their pottery or face a similar destiny.
Creating a market
Victor Aguila, who directs the Barro Sin Plomo project, said he hopes to develop a market for lead-free pottery geared to U.S. consumers. A for-profit arm of Barro Sin Plomo markets the products at U.S. trade shows, takes Internet orders and even delivers payments in remote Mexican villages... The project is trying to expand nationwide, and Aid to Artisans hopes to replicate it in Turkey, Uzbekistan and other nations.
Aguila said 2007 sales were on pace to reach record levels, thanks to vendors such as Art Effect in Lincoln Park, which has sold the project's pottery for years. The items have been lead-free since 2003.
At a time when lead risks make headlines, mainly because of toys from China, General Manager Naowna Simon said many customers seek out products certified as lead-free. The fear is so great that many won't use Mexican pottery for cooking or serving.
"It's always kind of sad to see a beautiful pitcher or platter sitting on a shelf because you're afraid to cook with it," she said.
Another economic factor, the doubling of lead prices on the world market since 2006 because of high demand in Asian manufacturing, gives project organizers their best chance to steer potters from lead, Turok said.
Fermin and Lucas are already making plans for a new life since abandoning lead about six years ago. They are remodeling their home to create a tiny inn for tourists exploring the pottery region.
Regardless of how their venture pans out, Lucas says the switch from lead has already proved a blessing. Five years ago, Lucas gave birth to their second daughter, Ana Luisa. She is healthy, and her older sister's high lead levels have disappeared.
Lucas even feels comfortable having Ana Luisa help out in the pottery studio. Lucas said she is proud that the girl seems on track to keep the family's legacy of art alive.
"But to have a daughter free of lead in a community contaminated with lead," Lucas said, "that is our greatest joy."