Lead in Dishes (how to avoid it, assess risk, and what brands to buy)


Ever since I discovered lead in the antique doors to all of our bedrooms, I have been highly skeptical of pretty much anything in our house. Including dishes. I recently tested some beautiful old dishes I have from the seventies. They came out fine.

Then a reader emailed me about a story that came out a few weeks ago. After digging around a bit more, I found some great resources for assessing the risk of your dishes, a list of “low level lead” brands (notice I said “Low” not “No”, and how to limit your family’s risk.

The Environmental Defense Fund has several fantastic resources. First off, they share the risks of lead in dishes, which we all know are significant, especially since we use them everyday.

Next, the Environmental Defense Fund lists risk factors:

“Potential risk factors include:

*China handed down from a previous generation. These heirlooms were made before lead was recognized as a hazard.

*Home-made or handcrafted china, either from the U.S. or abroad, unless you are sure the maker used a lead-free glaze or high-temperature, commercial firing practices.

*Highly decorated, multi-colored inside surfaces (the part that touches the food and drink).

*Decorations on top of the glaze instead of beneath it. Can you feel the decoration when you rub your fingers over it? When you hold the piece at an angle to the light, can you see brush strokes above the transparent glaze surface? Has the decoration begun to wear away?

*Corroded glaze, or a dusty or chalky grey residue on the glaze after the piece has been washed. THIS TYPE OF CHINA COULD BE QUITE DANGEROUS. STOP USING IT AT ONCE.

Any combination of factors 1 through 4 deserves particular attention. Factor 5, which could indicate extreme danger, is fortunately quite rare.”

Here are their suggestions minimizing risks from dishware:

“How do I minimize my risks?

*Don’t store food or drink in questionable china pitchers, bowls, etc. The longer food remains in contact with a china surface containing lead, the more lead can be drawn into the food.

*Don’t serve highly acidic food or drink in questionable china, especially to children. Acidic foods and drinks will leach lead out of china much faster than neutral foods like rice or mashed potatoes or neutral drinks like water or milk. Examples of acidic foods and drinks are: cola-type soft drinks; orange and grapefruit juice; applesauce and apple juice; tomatoes and tomato-based products like ketchup and spaghetti sauce; salad dressings with vinegar; tea and coffee.

*Don’t use a questionable piece of china in your everyday routine. Your favorite coffee mug, the bowl that usually goes into the refrigerator with leftovers, the everyday china your children use — these are the pieces of china to focus on. China that you use only on special occasions is of less concern (particularly if you follow tips 1 and 2).

*Don’t heat or microwave in questionable china. Heat can speed up the lead-leaching process. These precautions aren’t necessary, of course, if the china is lead-free or very-low-lead — i.e., meets the stringent California warning standards. See the Shopper’s Guide for a list.

And last but not least, check out their Shopper’s Guide for “Low Lead” dishes.

And don’t look to the FDA to keep lead out of your plates. “The food and drug administration has an allowable 3 parts per million on plates,” according to wtov.com. Now, I know it’s a small amount, but every exposure adds up (including vitamins and dishes!), and there is no need for this, nor should their be any tolerance for it. Here is one journalist’s journey from discovering lead in his dishes, to trying to return them at Walmart, and contacting the company, with no good results. It really shouldn’t be this hard, should it?

Image: Vintage Dishes by ex.libris on Flickr (I’m not saying these dishes contain lead!)

2 Responses to Lead in Dishes (how to avoid it, assess risk, and what brands to buy)

  1. shelley February 25, 2009 at 1:53 pm #

    I use Anchor Hocking dinner/dessert plates for my family as well as their bowls, drinking glasses and storage containers. I was told a few years back when I called that they are lead-free and their new website states this as well. They are available as open stock at Wal*Mart for about a $1 -2 a plate in my area ! I like minimal, so if you don’t mind that they are clear with no pattern, this may be a great alternative for others like me. great post as always :)

  2. Katy Farber February 25, 2009 at 4:23 pm #

    Thanks, Shelley. Those sound great. I just got some beautiful dishes for Xmas, but they don’t have that label! I need to search the company out– more work!

    Thanks for commenting!

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