KING COUNTY, Wash. — After scientific detective work and years of study, environmental experts for King County finally nailed down the cause of high levels of lead in the blood of some immigrant children.
They determined the children, largely new arrivals from Afghanistan, were being slowly poisoned by the traditional cookware their families brought with them from their native country.
Since that determination in 2019, King County’s Hazardous Waste Management Program has been trying to warn consumers, state and federal government and merchants about the dangers of imported cookware.
However, a KING 5 investigation found the warnings have only had limited success, and the products are still for sale on websites like Amazon and Etsy.
Studies by King County’s Hazardous Waste Management Program have focused mainly on Afghan pressure cookers, a traditional aluminum cookpot that is widely used in Afghanistan.
“It’s as common as water. It’s the number one thing that folks reach for when they are cooking a meal,” said Ariana Anjaz of the nonprofit Afghan Health Initiative, which partnered with King County to inform community members.
While warnings spread through the 6,000 or so Afghan transplants in south King County, Afghan pressure cookers have found a new life online with campers and outdoorsmen.
“MenGrills pressure cooker can be used directly on your fire,” boasts Minnesota-based MenGrills, which markets the Afghan pots for cooking over a live fire.
MenGrills did not respond to several messages from KING 5.
Most of the kettle-shaped pressure cookers are made by Rashko Baba in Afghanistan, and King County experts believe they are manufacturing them with scrap metals containing lead, including car engine parts, even though the cookware is marketed as “aluminum.”
Public Health Department Environmental Scientist Dr. Katie Fellows says all the Afghan pressure cookers she has tested have shown high levels of lead.
“Any lead is too much lead,” said Fellows. “I think one of them we tested had 60,000 parts per million of lead,” she said, according to an X-ray analysis of the cookpot.
Further analysis by the University of Washington showed that lead from the pots leached into food at a rate that exceeded U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) limits “…by almost 900 fold,” according to research documents.
Experts said lead poisoning is particularly harmful to children.
“There are a lot of developmental delays, mental health issues, nutrient deficiencies…which can actually affect the way that a child develops and grows, including things like stunting,” said Anjaz.
KING 5 purchased three pots during the month of April. One purchased on Amazon.com was shipped by MenGrills and the second by a company called MyCustomStore. A third, ordered through the online marketplace Etsy, was shipped by Aesthatichouse in Anaheim, California.
In her lab, Fellows used an X-ray fluorescence analyzer to determine the approximate lead content of each of the cookers that KING 5 received.
“Each scan takes about 60 seconds,” said Fellows as she held her XRF gun up to a pot from MenGrills. The scan showed 1,218 parts per million of lead in the body of the cooker and 34,000 parts per million in the brass valve in the cooker’s lid.
“That’s a lot of lead. Ideally, cookware contains zero amount of lead,” Fellows said.
The second pot tested 36,000 parts per million in the lid and the third tested 33,000 parts per million of lead.
Fellows and Research Services Program Manager Dr. Steve Whittaker have tested more than 90 pieces of cookware, most of them imported from Afghanistan and India where products are made with an aluminum alloy called Hindalium. Nearly all of them have contained high levels of lead.
Their advice is to stop using those products immediately and replace them with stainless steel cookware.
“Stainless steel does not contain lead and it is a safer alternative to recommend to families,” said Fellows.
That is advice that Faizul Haq Safi of Kent took to heart.
When he moved to the U.S. from Afghanistan in 2021, samples of blood were taken from his 7 and 8-year-old children as part of the entry process. Their bloodwork showed that the children had high levels of lead in their blood.
“I’m so worried,” Safi said through a translator as he greeted a KING 5 News crew at his house.
Soon after his arrival, the Safi family took part in a program that allowed him to swap out his aluminum Afghan pressure cooker.
“A lot of Afghans are still using it. Unfortunately, we don’t know anything about the lead poisoning,” Safi said.
The King County health department program worked with the Afghan Health Initiative to fund a replacement program for the traditional cookers.
The program replaces the Afghan pressure cookers with a stainless steel Instant Pot.
Safi and his wife used the Instant Pot to cook the visiting news crew a dish of chicken and rice, along with a table of elaborate foods – an Afghan tradition when guests visit. “Welcome to my home,” Safi said as he served the food.
Safi received the Instant Pot and good news from the health department that his children’s lead poisoning was caught in time and they should not suffer any ill effects.
“I was so worried. I was very glad that I participated through the Afghan Health Initiative,” he said.
Anjaz says despite an aggressive information campaign, the problems from the Afghan pressure cookers are “rampant,” with ethnic markets continuing to sell the imported pressure cookers. Some families also are unwilling to give up their prized Afghan pressure cookers.
“It’s a very slow process because it’s something so near and dear to the culture as well as something that is very, very common in our families,” said Anjaz.
She says 250 families have swapped their pressure cookers for stainless steel Instant Pots so far.
King County’s Hazardous Waste Management Program has also been trying to halt the sale and import of pressure cookers and other harmful cookware.
In letters sent to Amazon and Etsy in January, King County’s Hazardous Waste Management Program told the companies that products on their websites could be “…a significant source of lead exposure for your customers” and that “We recommend that (Amazon/Etsy) stop offering or selling the cookware.”
Etsy did not respond to KING 5’s questions about why Afghan pressure cookers are still available on its site.
In a statement, Amazon said, “Safety is a top priority at Amazon” and that “The products in question are no longer available.”
However, the two Afghan pressure cookers that KING 5 purchased in April were still available on the website days after Amazon released its statement on May 5.