Lead found in ceramics from Philadelphia's Chinatown

A LeadCheck swab, used to test a soupspoon purchased in Chinatown, turns bright red, indicating the presence of lead.

Exploring Chinatown after moving to Thomas Jefferson University Hospital last summer, emergency-room doctor Gerald F. O'Malley noticed brightly colored ceramic cookware for sale everywhere. It triggered decade-old memories of treating Mexican children in Denver whose lead poisoning he had suspected - but never got a chance to test - was due to pottery from home.

Could that be happening here?

O'Malley quickly assembled a team of medical students to purchase and screen several dozen glazed plates, cups, spoons, and teapots. The initial results: 25 percent of the items from Chinatown shops contained lead, as did 10 percent of Chinese-made products bought elsewhere.

Public-health officials say there is no evidence that the decorated tableware has caused elevated lead levels in children, which are carefully tracked. But much about lead remains unknown. And the minimum level believed capable of harming a developing brain has been lowered repeatedly.

At the very least, confirmation of the Chinatown findings - the screenings, using a swab intended for home use, indicated only lead's unexpected presence, not its quantity - could suggest another hole in the nation's food-safety system, and one more potential worry for consumers. READ MORE