Questions and Answers About Lead in Tableware
Lead is a toxic substance that can affect people of any age. It is especially harmful to children, pregnant women, and unborn babies. Lead accumulates in your body, so even small amounts can pose a health hazard over time. Lead is used in the glazes or decorations covering the surface of some ceramic dishes. This lead can get into food and drink prepared, stored, or served in the dishes.
For most people, tableware alone does not pose a significant risk of lead exposure. Other sources of lead, such as lead in paint or soil, are much more likely to be a problem. In some cases, however, lead in tableware can be a serious health threat. Some dishes contain enough lead to cause severe lead poisoning. Even dishes with lower lead levels may contribute to a person's overall lead exposure. This document answers questions about when and how lead in tableware may be a health hazard, who is most likely to be affected, and how to minimize the risk of exposure to lead from tableware.
Lead can be released from the glaze or decoration on the surface of the dish and pass into the food or drink in the dish. This is called "leaching." Then, when you eat the food, the lead gets into your body. The amount of lead that leaches from a dish depends on the amount of lead in the dish, the type of glazing that is used, how the dish is used, what kind of food is put in it, and how long food is left in the dish.
Proposition 65 is a law that requires businesses in California to provide warnings when they expose the public to significant amounts of chemicals that cause cancer, birth defects, or reproductive harm. Lead is one of the chemicals covered by this law. Tableware with lead levels below Proposition 65 standards is considered safe to use. Tableware that exceeds Proposition 65 lead levels may be sold, but only with a written warning. The U. S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also regulates the sale of tableware that contains lead. Tableware exceeding the FDA levels cannot be legally sold in the U.S. For more detailed information about regulations governing lead in tableware, please see the section Regulation of Lead in Tableware.
What Dishes May Expose You to Lead
You cannot tell for sure whether a dish has lead just by looking at it. However, some types of dishes are more likely to have lead.
- Traditional glazed terra cotta ware made in some Latin American countries, such as Mexican bean pots. They are often quite rustic and usually have a transparent glaze. Unless they are specifically labeled as lead-free or sin plomo (Spanish), use of these pots for cooking is especially hazardous and should be stopped at once.
- Highly decorated traditional dishes used in some Asian communities.
- Home-made or hand-crafted tableware, either from the U.S. or a foreign country, unless you are sure the maker uses a lead-free glaze.
- Bright colors or decorations on the inside dish surfaces that touch the food or drink. This includes the upper rim of a cup or bowl.
- Decorations on top of the glaze instead of beneath it. If the decorations are rough or raised, if you can feel the decoration when you rub your finger over the dish, or if you can see brush strokes above the glazed surface, the decoration is probably on top of the glaze. If the decoration has begun to wear away, there may be an even greater lead hazard.
- Antique tableware handed down in families, or found in antique stores, flea markets and garage sales. These dishes were made before lead in tableware was regulated.
- Corroded glaze, or a dusty or chalky grey residue on the glaze after the piece has been washed. Tableware in this condition may represent a serious lead hazard and should not be used.
Lead is rarely found in plain white dishes. Lead-containing glazes or decorations on the outside of dishes or non-food surfaces are generally not a problem. (See #10 below regarding use of dishwashers for dishes containing lead.)
Most tableware in common use does not pose a lead hazard. However, if the amount of lead that can leach into food from your dishes is greater than Proposition 65 levels, your dishes may pose a potential health risk.
You can find out if your dishes meet Proposition 65 standards for lead if they are new or still being sold by a major retail store. (This information is only available for tableware currently being sold.) There are three ways to get this information:
- Ask at the store where the dishes are sold if the dishes meet Proposition 65 standards. If the salesperson is unable to tell you, ask for the customer service department, tableware buyer, or quality control manager.
- Ask the manufacturer if the dishes meet Proposition 65 standards. The retail store can give you contact information for the manufacturer. Also, many manufacturers have toll-free "800" numbers for customer service. For directory assistance, call (800) 555-1212.
Occasional use of leaded crystal will not expose you to large amounts of lead, unless liquids have been stored in a leaded crystal container. Nevertheless, children should never eat or drink out of leaded crystalware. Do not store food or alcohol in leaded crystal decanters or containers. The longer food or drink sits in crystalware, the greater the chances are that lead will leach into it. In addition, the amount of lead that leaches into the food or drink will increase with time.
Use of Tableware that Contains Lead
This is a decision each individual must make. Dishes that contain more lead than the Proposition 65 levels may expose you and your family to small amounts of lead over time. We recommend that you avoid or reduce lead exposure whenever you can.
The safest practice is not to use tableware that you are unsure of with food or drink. This is especially true for tableware used by children, pregnant women, or nursing mothers. Follow these precautions:
- Do not heat food in dishes that contain or might contain lead. Cooking or microwaving speeds the lead-leaching process.
- Do not store foods in dishes that contain or might contain lead. The longer food stays in contact with a dish surface that leaches lead, the more lead will be drawn into the food.
- Do not use dishes that contain or might contain lead with highly acidic foods or drinks. Acidic foods and drinks leach lead out of dishes much faster than non-acid foods. Common acidic foods include foods that contain citrus fruits, apples, tomatoes, soy sauce, and salad dressing. Many drinks are also acidic, such as fruit juices, sodas (especially cola drinks), alcoholic beverages, coffee and tea. Common non-acidic foods include rice or potatoes; water and milk are non-acidic drinks.
- If you do not know if a dish contains lead, do not use it in your everyday routine. Any combination of the first three factors can increase the risk of exposing you to lead. An example would be storing spaghetti with tomato sauce in a lead-containing ceramic dish, then heating it in the same dish in the microwave.
If a dish contains lead, using the dishwasher can damage the glazed surface. This can make it more likely to leach lead into food the next time it is used. In addition, in some cases, lead may contaminate other dishes in the dishwasher.
No. The lead-leaching process can still take place even if the surface is not broken or worn. However, if the surface is chipped, cracked, or worn there may be a greater exposure to lead.
The answer is not the same for all dishes. Under some circumstances, as dishes get older, they may leach more lead into food or drink.
Other Questions about Lead in Tableware
Lead has long been used in ceramicware, both in glazes and in decorations. When used in a glaze, lead gives a smooth, glasslike finish that allows bright colors and decorative patterns underneath to show through. It provides strength and keeps moisture from penetrating into the dish. In decorations, lead is often associated with rich or intense colors.
Lead-free tableware contains NO lead.
Lead-safe tableware contains some lead, but the amount of lead that can get into food does not exceed the California Proposition 65 standards. Either there is very little lead in the tableware, or very little of the lead actually passes into food with use.