We’re big proponents of hand-me-downs and secondhand goods at Cheapism. Not only are they often more affordable and higher quality, but they’re also more sustainable than disposable, mass-market geegaws. But there is one exception: vintage ceramic dishware. These toxic treasures — cups, mugs, plates, and other dishes from the past — could contain high levels of lead, a heavy metal that’s harmful at any dose. Here’s everything you need to know about vintage dishware and lead poisoning, including how to test for lead.
Why Is Lead Harmful?
Lead is a naturally occurring toxic metal that wreaks havoc on human cells and internal organs, disrupting enzyme function, damaging the brain, harming the kidneys, and decreasing fertility. Lead poisoning is especially harmful to a child’s developing brain, which is why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that there is “no safe level of lead exposure.”
Lead poisoning is also pernicious because its effects are often subtle at low doses. A 2018 study in The Lancet found that low-level lead exposure increased the risk of premature death, with disastrous effects on the heart. Participants that had high lead levels were at a 70% greater risk of cardiovascular death.
Suffice it to say that lead is one of those nasty substances — like asbestos and mercury — that you want to avoid at all costs.
Why Do Imported and Vintage Ceramics Contain Lead?
Humans have glazed pottery with lead for thousands of years because of its bright, glassy finish, but it wasn’t until the 20th century that countries began to regulate its use. In the U.S., it took until 1971 for the Federal Drug Administration to limit lead content in ceramics, and in some countries, lead remains unregulated. For that reason, consumers should be wary of imported dishware and U.S. ceramics produced before 1978, when the FDA finally banned lead-based paint. Even so, lead poisoning continues to be a problem.
Just two years ago, the Health Department of New York announced that it was investigating 15 cases of lead poisoning that they’d traced back to “traditional” ceramicware. Patients’ blood levels were up to 10 times higher than the threshold for “significant exposure.”
Which Vintage Dishes Contain Lead?
Damaged or worn ceramics
Handmade ceramics that have a crude appearance or irregular shape
Ceramics purchased from flea markets, street vendors, or other shops that don’t provide information about the product’s manufacturing process or origin
Ceramics decorated in bright colors such as orange, red, or yellow
Ceramics with warning labels, such as “Not for Food Use — May Poison Food”
You can also consult the FDA’s Red List of ceramics or the Lead Safe Mama website, both of which include lists of toxic dishes. Certain brands and designs — such as vintage Corelle dishes produced before 2005 — are known to contain lead and should be avoided.
How Do You Test Dishes for Lead?
The best way to avoid lead poisoning from ceramics is to simply avoid vintage and imported dishware that you’re unsure of, but you can also test your dinnerware for lead paint. The Environmental Protection Agency currently recommends three tests: 3M LeadCheck, D-Lead, and test kits from the State of Massachusetts.
In most cases, you’ll take a swab and rub it against the surface that touches food. If the swab changes color, then the product is leaching lead. The FDA “strongly advises against using” lead-positive dishes “for cooking, serving, or storing food or drinks.”
Notably, at-home tests for lead aren’t sensitive enough to detect low levels of lead, such as those that necessitate California’s Proposition 65 warning label.
What Can I Do if I’ve Been Exposed?
A blood test is the only way to tell if someone has been exposed to dangerous levels of lead. If you believe you or a loved one has been exposed, consult your doctor and ask for a blood test.
If you only buy and use dishes made in the U.S. after 1978, then you can guarantee that you're using safe, lead-free dinnerware. That said, we know that's not practical for many families, especially if you inherit old dishes or buy them from a thrift store. In that case, avoid the aforementioned "problem type" ceramicware, and test dishes that you're unsure of.
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