Tag Archives: Chinatown

Update: Chinatown lead glazes story


Is this spoon contaminated with lead glaze? Similar spoons found in Philadelphia's Chinatown were contaminated. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Recently, I covered a story about lead glazes found in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania’s Chinatown, having learned of it in a New York Times story, which can be found here. There has been an appreciable amount of traffic on the Internet about this issue. Study result numbers have also surfaced and they are startling enough to warrant an update, as over 25% of the samples tested positive for lead. The story centers on Dr. Gerald O’Malley, who saw bright glazes on ceramic cookware as he strolled through Philly’s Chinatown. After cocking an eyebrow, he decided it was worth investigating. The results of his tests are alarming. In addition, he said that if they were found in Philadelphia, similar products could be found in other Chinatowns. Vancouver, B.C. has a big Chinatown and I, myself, have entertained buying products similar to those shown in the photo of the Times article, the porcelain spoons glazed in yellow, turquoise and red. They are accompanied by matching pieces. I cannot say for a fact that the pieces I have seen are contaminated; however, after reading about this study, the chances are high. The story broke in the Daily Dose on Feb. 18, in an article by Josh Goldstein which can be found here. He wrote about Dr. Gerald O’Malley’s study and a previous one which focused on Mexican ceramics with lead glazes. The numbers: “Twenty-two of the items from Chinatown stores were lead-positive – 25.3 percent – compared with 5 of the items from stores outside Chinatown – 10.2 percent.” O’Malley is a toxicologist who works in the Emergency Room at Jefferson University Hospital, one of the best hospitals in the United States. Goldstein writes that “Dr. O’Malley was involved in a study that found lead leaching into food from glazed pottery that came from Mexico and was the cause of a pervasive lead poisoning problem among Denver’s Hispanic population.” O’Malley, Dr. Thomas Gilmore and 14 medical students from Jefferson formed a study team, then proceeded to buy samples. The kitchenware they bought totalled “87 items (plates, cups, spoons, etc) from 18 stores in Chinatown and a comparison of 49 items of similar cost imported from China from five stores outside of that neighborhood,” states Goldstein. After the samples were cleaned, they were tested with LeadCheck, an inexpensive testing swab. O’Malley and his team couldn’t believe what they found. Goldstein reports O’Malley as saying “We were astounded – astounded – to find so many of them positive for lead.” While I was tempted to buy the colored porcelain spoons, I opted for clear glazed ones, which are probably safe because it is the brightly colored glazes that contained lead. I really need to check, though. How many people have been affected by such products, which have been available for years and years? O’Malley thinks this is a source of lead contamination that has gone unrecognized. Which begs the question…how many Vancouver Chinatown residents are affected? According to the 2006 census, Vancouver’s East and Southeast Asian population totals 27.88%, almost 600,000 people. We need to get to the bottom of this and, as O’Malley suggests, such lead contamination is unrecognized. Lead poisoning affects people of all ages, but especially children, causing permanent behavior and learning disorders. It affects bones, intestines, the heart, kidneys and reproductive organs. O’Malley has notified the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and asked that further testing be done. The study team is working with Philadelphia’s Chinatown Health Clinic, too, according to Goldstein. It looks like a mass screening of the Chinatown population will be taking place. Shopkeepers are also being educated about the hidden dangers of lead contaminated from tainted cookware. At no time did O’Malley blame the shopkeepers because, as reported previously, they were completely unaware of the problem. Goldstein also reports the response of the Chair of Emergency Medicine at Jefferson University Hospital, Dr. Theodore Christopher. He said, “This is an important study that will heighten the awareness of lead contamination in many different sources. It also confirms that medical professionals need to do a more in-depth job of assessing a patient’s social history and background, which may play a very important role in diagnosis of symptoms.” A related article can be found in Food Safety News. More follow-up is needed at the local level and I will see what I can find out. But be proactive. If you have ceramic kitchen ware with brightly colored glazes from either Mexico or China, find out if it is contaminated with lead glaze by using a LeadCheck kit that can be purchased at these locations.

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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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