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Nonprofit helps artisans in Mexico get the lead out

“The message transmitted through these [works] is that you are now a link in a chain that protects maternal and child health in Mexico,” says Neil Leifer, (above) with a bowl made by a Mexican artisan.

“The message transmitted through these [works] is that you are now a link in a chain that protects maternal and child health in Mexico,” says Neil Leifer, (above) with a bowl made by a Mexican artisan.

Neil Leifer left his Boston law firm two years ago after spending 20 years litigating cases involving children’s lead poisoning. He sued lead and lead paint companies and property owners and managers on behalf of children with lead poisoning. In 2008, Leifer cofounded a nonprofit that helps ceramic artisans from rural Mexico convert from lead-based to lead-free glazes. The Globe spoke with him in advance of the Dec. 15 pottery sale to be held at Thayer Academy in Braintree.

Q. What is it about lead?

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A. Lead is a neurotoxin, and it causes brain damage which produces learning and behavioral disabilities in children. It’s also harmful to women of childbearing age because it gets stored in their bones and they pass it along to their babies. Lead paint was banned in the US in 1978.

Q. Tell me about the problem in Mexico with the pottery.

A. The Spanish introduced lead glazing to the Indians of Mexico 400 years ago. The glaze makes pottery look shiny and brings out the colors. The vast majority of potters are still using lead. There have been many who abandoned the craft all together because the US market disappeared in 1978 when consumer items containing lead were banned. There was a risk that this tradition would disappear if we didn’t find a way to preserve markets.

Q. How did you get involved in the Mexican cause?

A. I was invited by some ceramic artisans to see a project in Mexico where they were using lead-free glazing. In 2006, I went with my wife and children to Michoacan, northwest of Mexico City, in the mountains. We looked at a number of home workshops where artisans were using lead-free glazing. We also heard stories about women who had multiple miscarriages and children born with injuries. When doctors told them to stop using lead glazing, they had healthy children and were able to export their pottery to the United States.

Q. How did your nonprofit start?

A. My wife and I and a number of physicians and others interested in the problem started Barro Sin Plomo USA — it means clay without lead — in 2008. We’re a sister organization to Barro Sin Plomo in Mexico. To drum up support, I brought some prominent doctors to see what was happening there, to look at the conditions of people using lead vs. those not using it.

Q. What did you learn about those still using lead?

A. The average home workshops that I saw were about 25 by 40 feet, with open-fire kilns. The indoor air quality is horrible and the kiln is in the same space as the bedroom and the kitchen. You can go into a grocery store and buy a couple of pounds of lead glaze powder and literally in the next row are sacks of flours and rice. We watched people work elbow-deep in lead powder. They inhale it.

Q. What is your group doing to help?

A. We work with artisans to reconstruct their old kiln or construct a new one, and we support them while they experiment with lead-free glaze to get the quality and consistency they’re looking for. When they’re ready to start marketing, we help them.

Q. Why should we care about this pottery?

A. These are works of art that are made in an environmentally safe way. The kilns require less energy and fuel. This is a sustaining small community enterprise, not mass-produced. The clay was dug up near their home, the styles and images reflect traditions that are personal to that artisan’s family. The message transmitted through these pots is that you are now a link in a chain that protects maternal and child health in Mexico, supports small family-run businesses and preserves a richly diversified indigenous culture.

Q. There’s a new documentary on one of the artisans not using lead glaze. Who is she?

A. Herlinda Morales from Sante Fe de Laguna in Michoacan. She makes very distinctive candelabras. She helped organize a women’s collective around health issues in her community. In January, she will teach a master class in ceramics at Thayer Academy as part of a three-day series.

Q. What are the activities?

A. Besides the ceramics class, there will be an all-school meeting, an evening party and exhibition, and various classes around the issues of ceramics and lead poisoning, and indigenous Mexican culture. Physicians from Children’s Hospital will come and teach about environmental health and I will do a lecture on the history of lead in connection with Mexican pottery.

Q. And Thayer is also holding a holiday pottery fair?

A. Yes, from 1 to 4 p.m. on Saturday. We’re bringing up pottery from a bunch of different artisans. They are all hand-made, hand-glazed, lead-free. They range from $10 apiece to a couple of hundred dollars apiece. They’re very unique and incorporate beautiful fish, bird, and flower designs.

Q. How many pieces do you own?

A. At least 30. We bake and serve with many of them; the rest we display as works of art.

Interview was edited and condensed.
Bella English can be reached at english@
globe.com
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