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Historic law to limit lead poisoning the result of community-centered initiative

A scientist wearing a white lab coat uses an x-ray fluorescent analyzer to test a cooking pot lid for the presence of heavy metals

This March, Washington became one of the first states in the country to enact legislation banning the sale of lead-contaminated cookware. It’s the culmination of years of research, advocacy, and community engagement.

The landmark new policy is an example of work originating with community. The Hazardous Waste Management Program (Haz Waste) was first tipped off to the issue after a series of in-home investigations discovered a high incidence of lead exposure cases in the Afghan immigrant community.

Lead, even in trace amounts, has serious health implications. It can lead to developmental delays, learning disabilities, and damage to the brain and nervous system in children. Among adults, it can result in high blood pressure, fertility issues, and cardiovascular problems.

Testing revealed that most of the lead exposures were linked to lead-contaminated cookware brought from overseas. Acting on this knowledge, Haz Waste partnered with the Afghan Health Initiative to provide in-home environmental assessments, culturally responsive educational workshops, and broad outreach to minimize future exposures and promote safer alternatives among the Afghan community.

At the same time, the Program’s Research team partnered with the University of Washington to develop a new method for testing how lead can leach into food from contaminated cookware. Testing revealed alarmingly high rates in many pressure cookers and aluminum items.

That research and community engagement became the impetus for a larger advocacy effort. The Program formed a working group, began contacting major retailers that carried the contaminated cookware—including Amazon and Etsy—and shared their research with professionals across the county. This year, it culminated in the drafting and passage of House Bill 1551.

“Working together is always better. House Bill 1551 demonstrates this, and how greater impact can be achieved when we work together,” explained Maythia Airhart, Director of Haz Waste. “This law is the result of collaborative partnerships with communities, and government and nonprofit agencies. This law not only protects our most vulnerable residents, but everyone in the state and beyond.”

The bill requires retailers to halt sales of cookware with lead levels higher than five parts per million, or risk steep fines and face enforcement by the Washington State Department of Ecology.

“Contaminated cookware has been pulled from shelves, unwitting retailers have been notified, and the FDA established an import restriction,” said Dave Ward, Policy Lead for Haz Waste. “Beyond Washington State, from Kabul to New Delhi colleagues have taken notice and are realizing this is a problem that crosses many borders.”

The new law confirms Washington’s role as a public health leader and promises to make the region and its residents cleaner, safer, and healthier.

“This work brought us one step closer to a world where people poisoned by their cookware is a thing of the past,” says Ward.

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