Daily Archives: March 30, 2011

NY Times: Lead contamination in Chinatown glazes

Chemical symbol for lead

When I saw the porcelain spoons in the photo on the Times site, my eyes grew large. The turquoise, yellow, and red glaze looked very familiar. I cannot tell you if the glazes on the spoons I saw in Vancouver were contaminated with lead, but, according to what I read today, it appears there is a high likelihood. Dr. Gerald O’Malley, who specializes in Medical Toxicology, studied bright glazes used in ceramics in Philadelphia’s Chinatown and found enough lead contamination to cause health problems. The story reporting this study was found in the online edition of yesterday’s New York Times. I saw the photo and thought, “Oh, my!” I have seen many such glazes here in the Vancouver metropolitan area…on porcelain spoons and matching bowls and tea pots. After reading this article, I would not want to take a chance on them without having a stamp of approval from health officials. The ceramic pieces O’Malley’s team studied, which proved to be contaminated, came from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania’s Chinatown. In addition, The Times quoted O’Malley as saying, “If it’s happening in Philadelphia, it’s happening in other Chinatowns in other cities.” (I am now wondering about my white porcelain spoons I bought in Chinatown in Vancouver. They have a clear glaze and no decoration.) The Times story made me think not just of the Chinatown in Vancouver’s east side, but also the huge Asian malls in nearby Richmond and smaller ones scattered around the area. In addition, many local mom and pop stores  often have tiny Chinese ceramics sections. There have been many scares pertaining to Chinese goods here, from tainted melamine to heavy metals in pharmaceutical preparations to dangerous chemicals in Chinese wines sold in Chinatown. A widely publicized toy scare hit North America a few years ago. It’s okay to say buyer beware, consumer beware, but there is no way to tell with some of this stuff. So I am grateful for this article. In the story, O’Malley made clear that the stores were not at fault, saying “the vendors should have the assurance that they’re buying from sources who are in compliance.” He continued, saying, “The vendors are getting bad press here, but we want them to be helped by this, not hurt. I’m hoping that the F.D.A. will do a formal investigation and in the end track this to the source.” I wonder if Health Canada will follow suit here. Environmental contamination that we cannot control on an individual basis is such an issue, we need to be vigilant about the areas we can act upon. Countries that import products from China must take an active role in ensuring the safety of these products because such oversight will not or does not take place in China in a manner that inspires confidence. I also feel very badly about the production potters who must work around such toxins in China.  At home, here, it is up to the health, environmental, and import agencies of the countries of the importers to make sure ceramic ware is safe for the public. If glazes in Chinatowns throughout the world are selling wares that may have lead glazes, action needs to take place immediately. Pieces here need to be tested, then the results of the testing need to be made public…as soon as possible. The dangers of lead poisoning need to be reiterated to the public. Chinatown, Chinese mall and small-business vendors need to be made aware of the potential for danger with the ceramic wares they sell. (It is possible the City Desk at the Vancouver Sun is already aware of this Times article, but the matter will be brought to its attention tomorrow during the Sun‘s daily editorial meeting.) There are Mexican import stores here, too, and the ceramic wares sold in these outlets should be checked, too. In addition to lead, all of these wares need to be checked for cadmium, too…. I don’t want to sound alarmist, but this area has a huge Asian population, many traditional wares are imported and sold here and I want to know if they are safe. I am sure citizens in New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco and elsewhere will do the same. I just googled O’Malley’s name and there are multi-lingual references to him in current news stories on the web, so maybe change is on the horizon. Now let’s see, what is Canada’s equivalent to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency….

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