Weidenhamer tests for toxic metals in cookware from Ghana

Jeffrey Weidenhamer never planned to research recycled cookware.

But eight years after being asked to study reprocessed pots for exposure of toxic metals in Cameroon, the Ashland University chemistry professor is still researching the topic.

His latest time spent on the subject was through study leave work in 2021 when he wrote about cookware in Ghana and had it published earlier this year in the International Journal of Environmental Health Research.

Between those two studies, Weidenhamer also was involved in a project that looked at toxic metal levels of cookware in three other African countries, as well as six more in Asia and one in Central America. That study also got published.

“What happens in a lot of the developing world is scrap metal is melted down to make cookware, and it’s high in aluminum,” Weidenhamer said. “It’s a cheap resource for them. You can melt it down, but the issue is the other metals that can be part of that scrap that gets melted down.

“It’s the lead, the cadmium and arsenic we find sometimes,” he added. “Those metals can come off into the food when you cook and could eventually be health issues.”

After hearing about the research in Cameroon and the 10 other countries, a photojournalist in Ghana asked Weidenhamer to do the same in his country and sent 14 recycled pots to test. The Ghanaian also asked Perry Gottesfeld, who worked with Weidenhamer on the two previous projects, to help, too.

Gottesfeld is the executive director of Occupational Knowledge International, a national nonprofit organization based in San Francisco dedicated to improving public health through strategies to reduce exposures to industrial pollutants.

He convinced Weidenhamer to help his organization test recycled cookware from Cameroon in 2014, which Gottesfeld said “was a big break for our organization as we had no funding to conduct this study and few places we can turn for help.”

The small nonprofit organization works with many partners and collaborators on varied projects, but its decade-long partnership with Weidehamer has been one of the best and most productive, Gottesfeld said.

“Jeff has been an incredible collaborator as he is always open to suggestions and input from others,” Gottesfeld said.

That's why Weidenhamer was open to helping Gottesfeld's organization even though he had never tested recycled cookware before.

“There were no standard methods for evaluating exposure to lead from aluminum cookware,” Weidenhamer said. “We found some methods we thought would give us some information.”

For the first two recycled cookware projects, Weidenhamer didn’t know what materials were melted down to make the pots. The photojournalist knew some of the people making them in Ghana, so he was able to supply that information.

“One operation melts down the scrap and makes aluminum ingots which are sold to cookware makers,” Weidenhamer added. “They take the ingots and make pots out of them. He was able to get ingots out of specific materials so, with the 14 pots, we have two pots each from auto radiators, an engine block –  from seven different materials.”

Seeking to determine whether avoiding certain source materials – not only automobile parts, but also appliance and electronic parts, as well as cans – could reduce the leaching of metals, Weidenhamer said the results from the Ghana study showed that selective scrap aluminum sourcing for recycled cookware does not avoid metal contamination of food, although some sources may release lower concentrations of certain metals.

Because he received the 14 pots in the summer of 2020 during the COVID pandemic, Weidenhamer did the research and writing for the Ghana cookware without help from students. His previous published materials on the subject in 2014 and 2017 had student involvement.

“For students to be able to participate in research that has some pretty significant implications for public health is a great opportunity, so I have tried to provide that,” said Weidenhamer, who has taught at AU since 1989.

Weidenhamer first got involved in studying toxic metals exposure in 2006 when he started testing inexpensive jewelry made in the United States after a boy in Minnesota died from swallowing some cheap jewelry. After that, he tested other things for lead exposure like painted toys.

All that research brought national attention to Weidenhamer’s work and caught the eye of Gottsfeld, who has been instrumental in getting many of the recycled cookware samples to the AU professor the past eight years.

“This is cookware used by tens of millions of people around the world, so it’s a potentially significant public health issue,” Weidenhamer said. “The issue with cookware is it can expose an entire family if you have a contaminated pot. It’s a problem at any age level., but for kids it can cause learning disabilities and behavioral problems.

“One out of three kids in the world has elevated blood-lead concentration,” he added. “The problem with lead is it’s very toxic in low concentrations and it causes damage to neurons in the developing brain and that damage is permanent. The only way to prevent harm is to prevent exposure.”

So why can’t these countries just switch from aluminum cookware to something that doesn’t leach toxic metals like cast iron or stainless steel?

“Those are more expensive materials that are not as available and aluminum is a cheap resource,” said Weidenhamer, who added that discovering ways to reduce the leaching of metals off the recycled cookware could be the next step.

While he admits he doesn’t know the solution to this health problem, Weidenhamer said there is hope it will come someday as other people and organizations, including a research group in South Africa, have gotten interested in the issue.

“There is an awareness that this is a problem,” he said. “Science is about one study coming out showing there’s a potential problem. As other people examine that and replicate the results, and it shows that yes this looks like a problem, then you start to build consensus that we need to deal with this.”

 Ashland University is a mid-sized, private university conveniently located a short distance from Akron, Cleveland and Columbus, Ohio. Ashland University (www.ashland.edu) values the individual student and offers a unique educational experience that combines the challenge of strong applied academic programs with a faculty and staff who build nurturing relationships with their students.