A new sheen for Mexico's potters

Five hundred years of tradition are tough to break. Like their parents and grandparents before them, Mexico's 500,000 potters use hazardous lead to glaze their work.

Readily available and very forgiving in the low-temperature kilns most village potters use, lead produces a luminous sheen and adapts well to color.

But a new international alliance is trying to break that habit. It hopes to persuade potters that the lead is not only bad for their health but bad for business, too. If it succeeds in Mexico, the group hopes to introduce alternative lead-free glazes around the world.

Lead represents a significant health problem in developing countries, according to the World Health Organization.

The key to the project's success will be marketability, says Jim Meadows, Mexico director for Aid to Artisans, the nonprofit heading up this new Lead-Free Pottery Alliance. "If there is not a market incentive, if there is not an incentive to improve the economic life of people, you're highly unlikely to have much success."

For a decade or more, Mexico's Ministry of Health and a national folk-art foundation have tried to reduce lead - with limited effect. What might change the equation this time is the combination of new laws and the unavoidable economics of a shrinking market.

The United States, Canada, and Europe banned lead-glazed dishware products some years ago (although US and Canadian firms still import lead-glazed decorative work). And many potterymaking families in Mexico are barely scraping by on what they can sell to local markets. Added to that, the three producers of lead oxide in Mexico have agreed - under pressure from the government - to withdraw the oxide from the market, leaving only a six-month supply in the field. Also, new amendments to Mexican law, which go into effect June 1, bring the country in line with more stringent international norms for the control of lead in consumer products.

Resistance remains, however. Anecdotal reports suggest that reluctant potters - at least, those who can afford to - have stocked up with several tons of glaze in anticipation of the cutoff.

Instead of using penalties, the Lead-Free Alliance is trying incentives to effect change. Its two technicians work with a few potters at a time, giving them the tools and know-how to switch to the safer borax glaze. With backing from UNESCO, the United States Agency for International Development, American Express, and Mexican institutions such as FONART (National Foundation for the Development of Folk Art), the alliance hopes to reach a limited number of potters whose success will convince others to make the switch.

"The ultimate goal was to reach 10,000 potters at least with [pamphlets], so that they know there is a way to change and it's not terribly complicated," Mr. Meadows says. The project, which started last October, will run through October 2005.

Critics aren't sure the program will create that much change. Even though enforcement at the US-Mexican border has become more rigorous over the past decade, few customers worry about lead, says Wes Baker, an importer of Mexican pottery based in Tucson, Ariz. Many decorative pieces he imports, such as vases, are glazed with lead.

"If you bring a piece in that's indelibly marked in the glaze for decoration only, then it's legal," he says. And he's skeptical about how well Mexico's new laws banning lead products will be enforced.

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