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Dear Dr. Meinig:
I have read your column on lead poisoning. I have been using for everyday some dishes made of cheaper quality ceramic ware that is decorated with flowers, also some mugs I bought in Ireland which are also cheap. Now I am using a clear glass mug. Does such clear glass contain lead? I know some fine crystal is made with added lead. Are plain white dishes dangerous? Can you tell me where one may get dishes tested for lead content? – I.S.
Since reporting how FranWallace nearly died before she learned her terracotta mug was loaded with lead that leached into the beverages she consumed over a dozen times a day, I called her in Seattle.
She was kind enough to send copies of the scientific/medical articles and the Congressional hearing data on this subject along with the easy home test kit they are distributing. The advantage of their kit is that anyone can do a simple screening test of their dinnerware in their home for very little cost. Most laboratory tests run from $10 to $100 per item. Their kit costs $24.50 and will test about 100 items. I tested eight of our dishes and found one teapot to be very high in lead. Fortunately, it is one we seldom use.
During the Congressional hearing on this problem, Congressman John D. Dwight stated:
“Most ceramic ware (i.e., china, porcelain and earthenware) and cookware sold today is coated with glazes containing lead or cadmium. The lead is used to achieve a shiny, smooth surface while the cadmium brightens the colors in the design and finish. When the glaze is properly formulated. applied and fired, the final product is almost impervious to the effects of food and beverages. However, problems occur when the glazes are improperly used, particularly when the ceramic ware is not fired at a sufficiently high temperature or for a sufficient time. The defective ceramic ware can release dangerous levels of lead or cadmium into the food being served or stored in the items. The danger increases when acidic food and beverages (i.e., tomato sauce, orange juice) are served or stored in the ceramic ware and cookware.
”The severity of illnesses relating to lead toxicity depends on both the duration and intensity of exposure. Lead accumulates in the body over a lifetime and can lead to chronic illnesses of the nervous system, kidneys, Iiver, and the reproductive and cardiovascular systems. Children are particularly vulnerable due to special concerns, including (1) higher absorption rate than adults; (2) rapid rate of body growth; (3) immaturity of the kidneys, liver, nervous system and tissues, such as bones and the brain.
“Two young boys in Montreal suffered acute lead poisoning which was attributed to the consumption of apple juice from a glazed pottery jug over a four-week period. One boy died and the other recovered after extensive treatment for lead poisoning.”
Ceramic ware sales in the U.S. totaled $509 million in 1985. Of these 60 percent were imports. In 1987 the FDA tested 811 import samples and found 16 percent had high, unacceptable levels of lead.
As a result of their investigation the FDA recalled hazardous ceramic ware from 21 firms, including such well-known ones as McDonalds, Mobil Service Stations, Macy’s, China Bazaar, Nordstrom’s, Brookstone, Pier 1 Imports and Williams-Sonoma. Most of the high lead and cadmium ceramic ware were imported from such countries as India, Italy, Macao, North Korea, Pakistan, China and Thailand.
While most ceramic ware in this country is made from proper formulas and is fired sufficiently to seal the glaze, some smaller companies do violate government standards.
To reduce the risk of lead or cadmium poisoning from dinnerware, do not put earthenware in the dishwasher. The FDA has published the following additional advice:
- Avoid use of ceramic ware for storing food. Instead, use glass or plastic containers to store foods, especially those foods with a high acid content, such as orange, tomato and other fruit juices, wines, tomato sauces, and vinegar. Acid in the food can increase the amount of lead released into the food.
- Beware of products purchased in other countries. The safety of dinnerware can vary from country to country. If you’re unsure about whether products meet safety standards, it may be wise to avoid the purchase–or, don’t use them with foods.
- Don’t use antiques or collectibles to hold food or beverages. Items bought at garage sales, craft shows, antique shops, flea markets, rummage sales and other such places, along with family heirlooms, may have been made years before federal standards were imposed. Hence, using such items to hold food or beverages is not generally recommended.
- Be cautious of ceramic items made by amateurs or hobbyists.
Glazes that are safe can be obtained by hobbyists, but there’s no way of knowing if proper techniques and equipment were used to apply them. The safest course is to use such items for display purposes only.
These tips, say FDA officials, are intended as general guidelines. The fact remains there is no way of knowing for sure whether a piece is safe without having it tested.
Most of your questions are answered above. Clear glass appears devoid of lead. Plain white dishes made in the U.S., for the most part, would be safe to use. However, the only way to know is to test them.
To obtain the Home Test Kit, endorsed by the FDA, send $24.50 to Frandon Enterprises Inc., 511 N. 48th St., Seattle, Wash. 98103.
If you prefer laboratory testing, the least expensive one I know of is Northwest Laboratories Inc., 1530 First Ave. South, Seattle, Wash. 98134, (206) 622-0680. Fran’s information packet states they charge $7.50 per sample and have a $15 minimum.