Lead-poisoning case points to trouble for Mexico pact

May 04, 1991|By John M. McClintock | John M. McClintock,Mexico City Bureau of The Sun

MEXICO CITY -- U.S. Embassy employees and their children were tested for lead yesterday after the ambassador's daughter was flown to the United States with "alarmingly high lead levels" in her blood, according to embassy sources.

Alejandra Negroponte, 10, the daughter of Ambassador John D. Negroponte, was flown to an undisclosed U.S. hospital in February or March, a U.S. Embassy spokesman said. Her blood levels are now back to normal, he said.

As a result, the embassy recommended this week that all embassy children under the age of 12 be tested for high lead levels by yesterday. The tests were also offered to adults. The embassy has about 300 families.

The mass testing occurred at a time when the Bush administration is trying to blunt environmental concerns in Congress about a free trade agreement with Mexico.

Mexican and Bush administration officials have mounted a major press campaign here and in the United States to underscore Mexico's efforts to clean up the environment.

The administration has been criticized in Congress for failing to include environmental issues in the trade talks. President Bush cited current U.S.-Mexican programs Wednesday but rejected tying the free-trade agreement to broad ecological requirements.

Congress is expected to decide this month whether to grant "fast track" status to the negotiations, which would limit Congress to a yes-no vote on a Mexican free trade agreement. Without the "fast track," the administration concedes it would be impossible to get a trade pact.

An embassy source said Alejandra's condition was described as "acute lead poisoning," but this was denied by the embassy spokesman, who added that her condition was an isolated case that had nothing to do with the Mexican environment.

"To say that lead is not an environmental issue in Mexico is incomprehensible," said Dick Kamp, head of the Border Ecology Project in Naco, Ariz. "Lead in the blood -- whether from pottery glazes or gasoline -- is a major problem in Mexico.

"This incident should serve as an example of what the Mexican people face in cleaning up their environment and that the Congress has an obligation to condition the free trade talks on helping Mexico," he said.

The embassy spokesman said Alejandra's illness was linked to a ceramic punch bowl that had a lead glaze. Lead from the pottery glaze leached into some punch, causing Alejandra and two friends to fall ill. Her friends were treated in Mexico, but Alejandra was flown to the United States, said the spokesman.

Mexican glazes, particularly in older pottery, have been linked to lead poisoning deaths and mental retardation. The United States and Mexico have strict export requirements for Mexican pottery used in cooking or the storage of acidic foods.

According to an eyewitness, State Department doctors told embassy employees that the testing this week was a result of the illness experienced by Alejandra and her friends.

The embassy spokesman insisted that the testing was not of an emergency nature. It was not known if the tests revealed high lead levels. The test samples are being examined at a hospital in Mexico City and at a U.S. testing facility.

Embassy personnel in the past have appealed to the State Department to establish weekend retreats for them to escape Mexico City's air pollution, thought to be the worst in the world. U.S. diplomats receive a 10 percent pay bonus for living in Mexico City's polluted environs.

Other embassies in Mexico City have weekend houses in the country or pay for trips outside the capital.

At least two embassies recommend that diplomats with young children not be posted to Mexico City, primarily because of lead in the air.

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