Why Lead In Dishes Is Not OK

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, the health impacts from lead exposure are many, including “learning disabilities; attention deficit disorder; decreased intelligence; speech, language and behavior problems; poor muscle coordination; constipation; sleeping disorders; high blood pressure; muscle and joint pain; birth defects; and damage to the nervous system and kidneys.”

Every exposure to lead, no matter how small, is harmful…especially for children.

The concern about lead has become more heightened than ever before because research now shows that every exposure to lead, no matter how small, is harmful.

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The American Academy of Pediatrics states, “There is no safe level of lead exposure in children, with lasting decreases in cognition documented in children with blood levels as low as 5 micrograms per deciliter of lead in blood. At that level, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends evaluation and intervention. However, all elevated lead levels are a concern. There is no safe level.”

As part of their lead awareness campaign, The World Health Organization lists some key facts about lead:

  • Lead is a cumulative toxicant that affects multiple body systems and is particularly harmful to young children.
  • Lead in the body is distributed to the brain, liver, kidney and bones. It is stored in the teeth and bones, where it accumulates over time. Human exposure is usually assessed through the measurement of lead in blood.
  • Any lead that is in the bones is released into the blood during pregnancy and becomes a source of exposure to the developing fetus.
  • There is no known level of lead exposure that is considered safe.
  • Lead exposure is preventable.

Facts about Lead In Dishes

Lead has been used in dishware for many years, typically to create bright colors and a smooth, transparent glaze.

According to the California Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Branch, some dishes contain enough lead to cause severe lead poisoning with lifelong deleterious health impacts.

News station WTHR used X-rays to test for lead in dishware and were surprised to find such high levels.

Of the 315 plates, bowls and mugs analyzed:

  • 113 (36%) exceeded the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) lead limit of 300 ppm used as a benchmark for children’s products in 2010. The allowable level is now 90 ppm.
  • 1 out of 10 dishes contained more than 10,000 ppm of lead.
  • Several of them topped 100,000 ppm.

How dishes can cause lead poisoning in a child may be something you never imagined. In a case story from this report, doctors diagnosed an infant with lead poisoning and the family’s home was then tested by the Health Department. They found lead leaching from the family’s dinner plates. Unknowingly, the mother was ingesting lead from the plates and passing the lead onto the child through her breast milk.

Lead poisoning can also occur by:

  • eating foods with an acid base on leaded dishware;
  • microwaving your food on leaded dishware since this speeds up the process of lead leaching into the food;
  • putting dishes into a dishwasher where the heat and water intensity can damage the glazed surface and allow lead to leach.

What Does “Lead-Free” Really Mean?

The California Department of Public Health website says that lead-free tableware contains NO lead.

But the FDA has found pottery from Mexico labeled lead-free that exceeded the FDA’s limits for “leachable” lead, that is, lead that could get into food when it comes in contact with the pottery.

And, the ceramic industry has its own understanding of lead-free. Here’s an excerpt from the Fiesta Dinnerware Factory website:

“Dinnerware has been “lead-free” since 1986. The phrase “lead-free” has been and is used in connection with ceramics, including dinnerware products, in which a lead compound was not deliberately purchased and added as part of the composition even though a trace amount of lead may be present in the other naturally occurring raw materials. Because of the trace amounts of lead found in almost all ceramic raw materials, Homer Laughlin China chooses not to use the phrase “100% lead free.”

Be aware that if a manufacturer tells you they are lead-free, they may only mean that they are meeting the FDA requirement.

The FDA regulation is that dishware cannot leach more than 3 micrograms of lead per milliliter (mcg/mL) of solution. The limit established by California’s Proposition 65 sets stricter limits 0.5 mcg day.


Lead Poisoning is 100% Preventable

The solution to stopping lead poisoning is prevention. But because lead is so ubiquitous and any exposure is harmful, scientists who have completed international research studies on lead, such as Dr. Bruce P. Lanphear, are speaking out. “Collectively, these data provide sufficient evidence to eliminate childhood lead exposure by banning all nonessential uses of lead and further reducing the allowable levels of lead in air emissions, house dust, soil, water, and consumer products (Lanphear 1998Rosen and Mushak 2001).

Further, an in-depth report, “Preventing Lead Poisoning in Young Children” by the Advisory Committee on Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention in 2012 for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, also states that data demonstrate no “safe” threshold. The emphasis must be primarily on prevention.

Testing for Lead

 There are four main lead testing methods available to choose from, each with its own strengths and weaknesses.

lead test kit

Lead Test KitsLeadCheck ™ testing kits sometimes called swab tests, are inexpensive and available in hardware stores. The test relies on the reagents in the tube to contact the lead directly and dissolve some of it. If the swab turns pink or red, there is a hazardous surface level of lead present. While this is an inexpensive first step, the Center for Environmental Health warns that “the test may not detect lower but still significant lead levels, a negative result is still no guarantee that dishware is safe.”

Leach Testing – This is the laboratory test the FDA uses to determine how much lead is in an object. Lead can become leachable due to the manufacturing process, cracks or chips, or even regular use in the microwave or dishwasher. An acetic acid solution is applied and allowed to sit over a 24-hour period. An atomic absorption spectrometer is then used to measure any lead content. According to Mike Kashtok, an FDA consumer safety officer, “If plates are properly manufactured, that lead is bound within the glaze and will not leach into food, and it’s going to be safe.”

X-Ray Fluorescence (XRF) – The XRF is a non-destructive, portable or fixed instrument made to measure lead in soil and paint, toys and other objects. The XRF can determine if there is any lead in the object, but does not determine if the lead leaches out. Inspectors using this technology can be found through State Health Department websites or the National Lead Information Center at 1-800-424-LEAD.

Laboratory tests to determine how much lead is present in products. Labs typically use an acid or other dissolving agents. However, these methods are often destructive due to the agents being used or if part of the object needs to be removed for the test. To find a laboratory, the EPA has a National Lead Laboratory Accreditation Program List.


Take Steps Today To Eliminate Lead

  • If you have children or are pregnant or nursing, be sure the dishes you’re using regularly do not contain lead.
  • All dishware is suspect and should be tested before using, especially vintage dishes or glassware made before 1970 or any imported glazed pottery.
  • Do not heat or microwave food in dishes that you suspect contain lead as heat speeds up the leaching process.
  • Be aware that automatic dishwashers can damage glazed surfaces and cause lead to leach and contaminate other items.
  • Do not store food in dishes that might contain lead. The longer food has contact with lead, the more lead will leach into it.
  • Acidic foods cause lead and cadmium to leach from plates into food. Examples of food with an acidic base include apples, citrus fruits, tomatoes or tomato sauce, pickle juice, soy sauce, and salad dressing. Drinks such as sodas, fruit juices, coffee, tea, and alcoholic beverages are also acidic.
  • Never drink or eat out of leaded crystal.
  • Dispose of items with lead at a hazardous waste collection location.

How to Find Safer Choices

Clear, transparent glass plates, bowls and mugs are more likely to be free of lead. Plain white dishes may or may not have lead.

Tamara Rubin is an award-winning lead-poisoning prevention advocate and documentary filmmaker. She has taken on the cause of childhood lead-poisoning since 2005 when her own family was poisoned by the work of a painting contractor. See the personal story of one of her sons that she shares as a “cautionary tale.”

Tamara tests dinnerware, glasses and other products using the X-Ray Fluorescence spectrometer and publishes the results on her website. Below are some of the dishes and glassware she has found to have no lead. Clicking on the images below will take you to the listing on Tamara’s website. If you are considering purchasing, please use the Amazon affiliate links on her site so that she can continue her valuable work. You can find other items such as mixing bowls and bake-ware under #SaferChoices.