Getting the Lead Out

A Mexican folk remedy stymies attempts to cleanse Houston of a heavy metal

One reason for that, simply enough, is that greta works, at least at first, and at least if taken as directed. Greta is powdered lead salt, and it comes from one major source: Mexican ceramic shops, where it's used to glaze pottery. Although no one knows who started using it for empacho, generations of Mexican families are now used to stopping at regional ceramic factories to buy bags of the substance.

Although it's illegal in the United States, smuggling in a baggie of greta is simple. An enterprising parent can also find it in flea markets, a few herb stores and the local curandera's. And while the treatment is akin to dropping a bomb on an ant, there's no doubt it partially works. It's not for nothing that the loyalty to the curandera tradition is so fierce: both its faith healing component and herbal remedies have an excellent track record, one in which the use of a toxic remedy is a distinct, if deadly, aberration.

"We're talking about a different world-view, a situation where people traditionally get their health care from curanderas," says Bremer. "They trust them; they go to them. And they get better. Then we come along and say no, no, no, you shouldn't do that. We have to build the level of trust in the community that the curandera has, and I don't think we can easily do that over the radio or television."

For a case of empacho, seasoned curanderas will estimate the body density of a patient before handing out a dose. They know that a judicious pinch of greta halts diarrhea, and a larger amount has a violent purging effect. But while adult bodies can rid themselves of small quantities of lead, even a few pinches of greta will linger inside a child. If it's not cleared out, or if it's augmented by other lead sources, it eventually makes its way to the brain.

For Angel Faz, today a shy four-year-old with doll-like brown eyes and a scab on his nose, the effects of lead intake won't be known for awhile. "I try to be an optimistic person, but I hope to God he will recover, that I didn't do anything permanent," his mother says. She has reason to worry -- a routine school blood test a few months ago showed Angel had 45 micrograms of lead per deciliter of his blood. Now, after treatment at Ben Taub, Angel's level hovers at 29. Anything above a level of ten is considered dangerous.

Today, it seems, for every parent who learns about greta and pitches it out like a bad batch of tortillas, another newly arrived or returning immigrant is somewhere on a bus, confidently carrying his own sack of lead powder. Sometimes he's on his way to Los Angeles, sometimes to Florida. Greta use even has been documented as far away as Wisconsin. But in part because of the city's aggressive screening techniques, the greatest number of greta users are showing up in Houston.

Last March, a two-paragraph report from the Harris County Health Department describing the situation here caught the eye of Texas Health Department epidemiologist Teresa Willis. The note mentioned only four greta-linked lead poisonings, but it was enough to make Willis wonder if the state was doing all it could to warn people of the consequences of greta. "If it's happening in Houston, [high greta use] could be happening elsewhere," Willis says. "It's really hard to know who's being tested, and if we're capturing all the events." To find out, this week she'll meet with several other divisions of the state health department to plot out wider-reaching public awareness strategies.

Key to her efforts will be reaching people such as Orlanda Faz, who lives in a far-flung North End barrio and has little contact with Anglo Houston. Although she's lived in Texas since she was nine, Faz mainly speaks Spanish. Her schooling stopped in the sixth grade, and when she watches TV, it's not the news she clicks to, but telenovelas.

Still, it was an announcement on Channel 45 that alerted Faz about greta, inspiring her to dump her remaining supply. That points to one of the advantages of education where greta and similar cures are concerned: unlike with some environmental toxins, exposure to this poison can easily be cut off if a family chooses to do so.

Standing near her small wooden house, surrounded by dozens of cans filled with begonias, Faz voices a pragmatism that may be health workers' best ally. Recalling her road trip to Monterrey to smuggle the greta, Faz observes, "When someone's sick and you think something will help them, you do whatever you have to.

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