Dear Straight Dope:
My wife wants to get new dishes and coffee mugs. Our current pieces have chips and spiderweb-like cracks in the finish. This leads her to believe that we are at risk for lead poisoning. I'm happy to please her need for better place settings, but I am curious: Was there ever or is there a dangerous amount of lead found in these types of household products?
SD Staff Jillgat replies:
You probably don’t have anything to worry about with your dishes. Modern dishes made in the US do not contain lead. Glazed ceramic or terra cotta dishes and cooking vessels from Latin America — particularly Mexico — often have lead varnish or glaze. So do some traditional Asian and Italian dishes. Especially risky are imported dishes with brightly-colored glazes.
If dishes do contain lead, it’s important to never cook or microwave food in them (bean pots from Mexico, called “ollas” or “casuelas,” often have lead glazes), and to avoid storing acidic foods like tomato sauce, citrus fruit, soy sauce, alcohol, or coffee in them. Any of these dishes used frequently can cause cumulative lead poisoning, but cooking or storing food increases the risk. I recommend simply testing your dishes to see if they contain lead. Lead test kits — swabs that turn red if the surface being tested contains lead — can be found in home improvement/building supply stores. I discovered the beautiful yellow and turquoise Italian dishes I got from my grandmother had lead glaze on them, and I had been using them to cook red chile enchiladas. Ack. No wonder I can’t think straight.
Lead is an honest-to-God insidious environmental toxin. Most of the real danger for lead poisoning comes not from tableware but from people renovating and remodeling their homes, disturbing old house paint. Before 1978, many kinds of house paint contained lead, and it can now end up chipping or creating dust in your home and in the soil around your house. If you sand, scrape, or torch these surfaces, you create a hazard. Children are particularly at risk for serious health problems if they come in contact with even minute amounts of lead dust. Their growing bodies absorb the lead much faster than grown-ups do.
Some people face possible occupational exposure if they work in plumbing, radiator and auto repair, or stained glass or jewelry making. These workers can also put their families at risk if they carry lead dust home on their clothes, shoes, or skin. For more information on this, and how to test for lead around your home, contact your local HUD office or health department.
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