Getting The Lead Out
That pretty Oaxacan bowl from the corner store might look nice on the table, but think twice before ladling dinner out of it.
Thursday, May 31, 2001
Seaside is, without a doubt, one of the best places to find Mexican food in Monterey County. And some of the best Mexican food is from Oaxaca, a harshly beautiful state in southwest Mexico with a large Indian population. For a few bucks spent at the right local street vendor, one can get authentic red mole with mushrooms and veggies, complete with fresh tortillas, cooked in real Oaxacan pottery over a wood-burning stove. Without a doubt, it''s some of the tastiest food on earth.
Problem is, some of it can damage a person''s brain. Much of the pottery from the San Pablo and Santa Inez regions of Oaxaca is made with a lead-based glaze. The crockery works its way to California along with migrant workers headed for the Salinas Valley, where the cookware is used every day, just as it is back in Oaxaca. As a result, say Monterey County health officials, Oaxacan immigrants tend to have elevated levels of lead in their blood. Throw in low wages and a general lack of health insurance, and lead has become a public health problem.
Several years ago, the Monterey County Health Department started asking doctors to include blood lead tests with routine physicals. This year alone, the health department discovered 70 cases of elevated lead among children. That''s not counting those children treated by private physicians. Worse yet, no one knows just how many cases go unreported each year, as the indicators of elevated lead are all but invisible.
"Lead poisoning is asymptomatic," says Dr. Eric Sanford, a pediatrician at the Seaside Family Health Center. "People with elevated lead levels don''t feel sick. You can''t always see it, but it affects analytical thinking."
As a family doctor at a low-cost public clinic, Sanford deals with a wide range of people and problems. Lead is one of the tougher ones.
"Lead is particularly insidious," he says. "You have to realize even a little bit of lead hurts kids. It affects their brain power. [Affected] kids won''t get that A or B+ they deserve."
Levels of 20 to 40 micrograms per deciliter have major effects on the brain, but levels as low as 10 can have deleterious effects on an individual''s thought processes. A recent study published in Science News reports that even levels lower than those deemed acceptable by the U.S. government can damage the ability to learn and reason-small amounts can lower IQ by as much as 10 points.
Sanford has seen those levels and worse. One of his pregnant patients had a craving in which she ate the pottery itself, resulting in a sky-high lead level of 100.
All of this has spurred the Monterey County Health Department to intensify its education and outreach programs to the Oaxacan community. However, this has proven difficult.
One of the main challenges is that no one knows for sure just how prevalent lead poisoning is. Many of the workers are illegal immigrants who are reluctant to take their children to American doctors. Another obstacle is that many may not realize-or want to accept-that there''s a problem.
"My patients often go back to their home village," says Sanford, "only to be told by a local doctor that there''s no problem. They usually have normal or lower levels of lead than the rest of the town. The entire village will have elevated levels. The whole bell curve has been shifted."
Locally, NAFTA has contributed to the spread of lead. Because of the free trade treaty, entire truckloads of Oaxacan merchandise arrive in Monterey County weekly to cater to the estimated 5,000 Oaxacans now making their homes here. Inevitably, among the merchandise are the plain and unadorned clay culprits, often decorated with colored glaze. Earlier this year, county officials found lead-contaminated pottery in a Seaside corner store. The store immediately pulled the offending merchandise, but no one knows for sure just how many similarly unaware shops stock the pottery.
"It''s hard because some pottery is OK," says Sanford. "The green and black glaze has lead. Not all the rest do."
Seasonal influxes of imported food can also be a factor. At various times of the year, homesick Oaxacans longing for some good old-fashioned cooking can buy imported grasshoppers and pumpkin seeds. Too often, these delicacies have been cooked in the lead-contaminated pottery. And some of Sanford''s patients have reported buying authentic Oaxacan tortillas from a woman who sells food out of her van in Seaside. He thinks that this may be a major source of lead, but her style of mobile vending makes it nearly impossible to find out for sure.
Robert Melton of the county health department says that the key has to be prevention, not just treatment.
"Preventing lead is the only way to go," he says. "Recent studies in the New England Journal of Medicine have shown that, although treatment is possible, it will not work 100 percent."
Sanford agrees. "It''s frustrating for doctors," he says. "Not a whole lot of treatment can be done. You can''t undo the damage. You can''t just fix it."
And getting the word out about prevention presents its own difficulties. A variety of dialects peppers the Oaxacan region. People living just a few miles away from each other may not speak the same language.
Jesus Lopez works as a farmworker advocate with California Rural Legal Assistance. He says that his own group of outreach workers has a dozen or so Oaxacans working to help with translation, and there are still language barriers. He sympathizes with the county''s situation.
"There are lots of problems with communication," he says. "I''m not sure how [the health department] is going to educate them when [the Oaxacans] don''t even speak very good Spanish."
The day may come when home lead tests are available. In the meantime, Stanford stresses that kids can get health prevention physicals for free, and parents can ask to have lead levels checked.
Fortunately for lovers of Oaxacan food, a substitute clay is also available. "Oaxacan cuisine is just wonderful," gushes Sanford. "Food just tastes better when it''s cooked in that pottery."
theWeeklyTally700,000 Projected population of Monterey County in 2030. In 2000 the county had 401,762 residents. California''s population, now 33 million, is expected to swell to 51 million in the next 29 years.
--Source: Souce: California Dept. of Finance; U.S. Census Bureau