A Close Brush with Death Sets Fran and Don Wallace on a Crusade Against Poisonous Crockery

updated 11/28/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/28/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

As they freely admit, Fran and Don Wallace were looking for trouble when they strolled into an upscale boutique in Seattle. "Do you recognize that?" Fran whispered, as she pointed to a lovely hand-painted Italian bowl. Her husband, Don, nodded grimly. They bought the bowl for $70 and took it home, where a simple chemical test conducted by Don confirmed their suspicions: The crockery's lead-based glaze was breaking down, which meant that anyone using the bowl would be exposed to dangerous doses of the toxic metal. The Wallaces then alerted the Food and Drug Administration to the hazards of this line of ceramicware.

The recent buy-and-bust gumshoeing was the latest effort by the Wallaces to protect fellow consumers from an invisible hazard—crockery that can, quite literally, kill. Of the 20 cases in which dangerous imported pottery was recalled by the FDA last year, Seattle residents Fran, 49, and Don, 50, were responsible for more than half.

The couple learned the hard way before beginning their crusade. Ten years ago, while Don, then an Air Force lieutenant colonel, was serving a tour of duty in California, Fran began to show what appeared to be flu symptoms. The nausea, aches and pains would go away, doctors told her, if she drank plenty of liquids. So she took to her bed with her favorite brown ceramic mug—part of a 200-piece set that she and Don had recently purchased in Italy—and drank lots of tea.

She developed crippling abdominal cramps and severe anemia. The doctors' new diagnosis was far more chilling—porphyria, an incurable and often fatal hereditary blood disease. Just before Don was reassigned to the Dominican Republic in 1979, his health, too, began to deteriorate. Excruciating pain in his back and forearms forced him to twice undergo surgery on his wrists, and he began to display fits of moodiness and temper that seemed out of character in a man who had remained unflappable while flying 133 combat missions in Vietnam. Fran also became irritable. They ruled out coffee as a cause because they had switched to decaffeinated years ago. Then Don began to lose weight. "I said, 'Don, this job will end up killing you,' " Fran recalls.

Instead, finding himself "less and less diplomatic," Don requested early retirement from the Air Force in 1980. The couple moved to Seattle, where Fran's health at first improved. Then she took a turn for the worse—after the couple had unpacked their Italian dishware, although they didn't make a connection at the time. Soon her body was wracked with pain, and even the weight of a blanket became unbearable. When doctors told Don that Fran would not live much longer, he began scouring the medical literature himself, hoping to find something the physicians had missed. Remarkably he did: Although Fran was suffering from anemia, that condition is not usually associated with porphyria. "I was a trained accident investigator," says Don, who served that function in California from 1972 to 1975, "and something didn't add up."

Don found the next clue in a book describing diseases that could mimic porphyria. One sentence jumped out: It said lead poisoning could be confused with porphyria, but in that case anemia would then be present. "It was like a billboard in Times Square," he says. "It was the runway lights for me."

Though doctors scoffed at first, a blood test confirmed lead poisoning. A test of Don's blood also showed high lead levels. "I was a walking dead man," he says. Trying to trace the source of the poison, the Wallaces compared their daily routine with that of their son, 28, who showed no signs of illness. By a process of elimination, the source of the poison was tracked to the 200-piece terra-cotta set they used regularly. Highly toxic lead was leaching from the glaze of the dishes so freely that with each cup of coffee they were swallowing more than 10 times the amount of lead a person could safely tolerate in a day.

A month's blood cleansing treatment has apparently restored the couple's health, but they remain fearful of the long-term consequences. "For example, we don't know if we have any kidney damage," says Fran. The duo began their crusade against lead poisoning in 1983 and have made it the linchpin of their own rehabilitation. Don, who received a master's degree in public health from the University of Washington after leaving the military and now runs his own asbestos-testing lab, studies lead contamination as a sideline. "We make the money on asbestos, and we spend it on lead," he jokes. Indeed, they've spent thousands of dollars buying suspect dinner-ware at department stores, flea markets and boutiques. If the stuff passes their test, they donate it to charity or give it to friends. If not, they notify the FDA. "They're probably our best investigators," says Lloyd Johnson, the FDA lab supervisor in Seattle.

Yet the Wallaces are not content to leave the problem in the hands of bureaucrats. "Consumers think the FDA has been looking out for them," says Don. "But the FDA is a toothless watchdog." Last year 873 million ceramic pieces were imported. The FDA tested 811 pieces, and of that small sample, 16 percent couldn't meet federal lead-leaching standards. In addition to Italy, offending exporters of contaminated china to the U.S. include China, Mexico and Spain. This past summer the Wallaces went before Congress to plead for tougher enforcement. They've also developed a $24.50 do-it-yourself kit to test pottery for lead.

Not surprisingly, they feel a certain sense of mission. "Flying combat in Vietnam I knew I was at risk," says Don. "But to be minding our business and have our lives affected by something as innocuous as coffee cups—that's just not right."

—Jack Friedman, and Dianna Waggoner in Seattle

From Our Partners