A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Is red Fiestaware radioactive?

April 7, 1989

Dear Cecil:

One of the presents my wife and I got at our wedding was an original 14-inch Fiestaware cut plate, given to us by my grandfather. The plate is our favorite color: red. (Well, Fiesta calls it red, but actually it's more of a red-orange.) While we were admiring the plate my mother had to throw in her customary wet blanket. "You be careful!" she said. "Don't eat off that plate or let food sit on it! I read in an article that red-colored Fiestaware is highly radioactive."

My wife didn't buy this for a second, but I scare easily. Cecil, is red Fiestaware really radioactive? Is there a serious danger or is it one of those deals where we'd have to eat 600 meals a day off the thing for 3,000 years before we'd be in real danger? And why red?

Cecil replies:

You'd better sit down for this, lad. The pigment in red Fiestaware contains, among other things, uranium oxide. The Homer Laughlin China Company, which began making Fiestaware in 1936, was forced to discontinue the red version in 1943 so the uranium could be diverted to make atom bombs.

Gives you pause, no? Well, don't get too alarmed. The actual amount of radioactivity is extremely low--less than the normal background radiation you get from rocks and stuff. Homer Laughlin says they've kept tabs on the workers who used to make Fiestaware--who obviously were at greater risk than the end users--and they've never detected any unusual health problems.

The real problem, if in fact it's a problem, is that uranium is a heavy metal, as is lead, another red Fiestaware ingredient. In 1981 the New York State Department of Health warned that both could leach into food, particularly if it's acidic. Eat enough tomato sauce or whatever off red Fiestaware, they argued, and you could wind up with stomach disorders, kidney dysfunction, and God knows what else.

Homer Laughlin disputes this. One company official told me he and his family eat off red Fiestaware all the time, and says you'd only run into trouble if you ate acidic foods off the stuff for years and never washed the dishes. If so I have an old college roommate whose days are numbered, but normal humans are probably in the clear. If you're still concerned, hang the dish on the wall instead of eating off it.

Fiestaware, incidentally, is being made again after a 14-year hiatus. There's no lead in it now and no red either, unfortunately. Instead we get trendy colors like black--a regrettable surrender to fashion that has also afflicted such noble products as the lava lamp. But I guess it's better than no Fiestaware at all.

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