On the rugged slopes of northern Ecuador, villagers in La Victoria run a thriving cottage industry in pottery. They craft bowls, teapots and cups from local clays, apply homemade glazes, stack the pots in backyard kilns about the size of wilderness dome tents and, finally, fire up the kilns. The colorful glazes fuse to the clay, forming a shiny, impervious finish, ready for sale at home-based shops.
The enterprise raises the villagers’ standard of living. But it could be harming their health, says Oregon State International Studies biology major Erik Dove. Lead poisoning from ceramics — especially among children — is a worry for health-care researchers and providers in Ecuador, explains Dove, a pre-med student in the University Honors College. La Victoria, in particular, has been identified as a lead-exposure “hotspot” by the Department of Environmental Health at Emory University. “Lead-glazed pottery is likely a major contributor to hotspot lead poisoning in Latin America,” Emory’s researchers recently reported.
That’s because the glazes are made with toxic fluids from castoff auto parts.
“High in the Andean mountains, the indigenous peoples of Ecuador cling to the old ways,” writes science journalist Michelle Pflumm in a recent blogpost. She describes the artisans “huddling around bubbling cauldrons of molten lead salvaged from old car batteries.”
To help Ecuadorians identify their risks, Dove is studying the effectiveness of do-it-yourself test kits found in retail stores. During his recent summer internship with Child Family Health International, he traveled from the city of Quito, where he was based, to the rural community of La Victoria, where he bought 20 pieces of pottery (at about $1 each) from various vendors. In an epidemiology lab run by College of Public Health and Human Sciences Assistant Professor Molly Kile, he scrapes glaze samples from each pot and then mixes the sample in a vial of solvent. A dark color means lead is present.
“Testing with the home lead tests showed that the majority of ceramic specimens — five of the six I’ve tested as of mid-August — contain elevated levels of lead,” says Dove, who grew up in Santa Rosa, California. “This means that they contain more than the EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) approved concentration for lead in paints.”
Next, he will run the same samples through a mass spectrometry machine and compare the results against those of the home test kits.
While in the cities of Quito and Chone, shadowing physicians in clinics and studying medical Spanish, Dove’s biggest learning curve was the cultural divide between urban and rural communities. One day, for instance, a man came to the ER with his arm “swollen enormously” from snakebite. “His arm was jet black,” Dove recalls. “He was drifting in and out of consciousness.” It turned out that instead of going straight to the hospital after getting bit, the man had traveled several hours in the opposite direction to see a shaman. The shaman prescribed a dose of the man’s own urine. After the remedy failed, the man eventually arrived at the hospital. But it may have been too late to save his arm.
“In Ecuador, there can be a divide between Western-style medicine and traditional medicine or alternative healing. You have to be sensitive in order to, A, not offend and, B, to be able to treat. You do a lot of explaining while at the same time supporting their autonomy. It is so important to consider each patient’s values, beliefs and ideals during treatment.”