A friend of mine recently posted on Facebook about her concern that the teapot she’d just acquired from a thrift store could be a source of lead. While I was pretty sure she had nothing to worry about, given that it looked to be manufactured recently, it made me think that the vintage dishes I ate off of every day — made in the 1950s, before current FDA lead standards were in place — could be problematic.
My research revealed that lead is commonly used in the ceramics process, and the presence of lead per se in dishware isn’t a problem — it’s that sometimes, if the glaze is deteriorating, the lead can leach into to your food, and potentially lead to lead poisoning, which can be very serious, especially for children. In some cases, excess lead ingestion can also result from contact with new dishes that don’t conform to current FDA standards (pottery from Mexico, in particular, is a problem.)
I bought a test from the hardware store (essentially a few small strips of paper with rhodizonate or sulfide on them, which react when coming into contact with lead), followed the instructions, and my plates came up positive for lead. However, the pink color that indicated a positive result is very similar to the color of the pink paint on my plate, and when I tried applying vinegar to that same area (as the test suggested) the cotton ball also turned slightly pink, thus invalidating the entire test, according to the instruction’s own guidelines.
In addition, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has noted that a lot of these home tests give incorrect results (more typically false negatives than false positives) so I really didn’t know what to think. However, in the interest of science and my health, and my grandparents’ entire dish set, I bit the bullet and sent one of my plates to Chicago Spectro Service Laboratory so they could check it out. Though several articles on the subject of lead testing suggested sending a sample from your set of dishware for this kind of official testing, it’s a fairly impractical solution on a wide scale since (a) they’re not really set up to deal with the public — they ignored my email and I had to break down and call them, and (b) it’s not that cheap, $35, which, if you have just a few related items, may not make financial sense, and (c) they will destroy the item in the process, thus making it completely pointless for a single item. But, hey, even if you’d never go that far, you can live vicariously through me!
Today I got my results back! It looks as if my dinner plate, which was absolutely the most beat up one that I could find in the bunch, leaches 3.04 ppm (parts per million!) of lead, which is such a tiny, miniscule amount above the 3.0 ppm that the FDA recommends that I think it’s totally fine. (They actually recommend testing six related items and getting an average, though I declined to pay for and destroy six pieces of my dish set to totally comply with this recommendation.) I don’t know if my dishes are typical of their era (the 50s, I think), but I can tell you if you’re eating off Crooksville china like me, you’re probably not in too much danger.
If you have older dishes, or new ones that are handmade or which originate from somewhere with dubious lead standards, it’s best to not store food in your dishes and to avoid eating acidic foods off them. Also, don’t use them in the microwave or dishwasher.
I hope this won’t discourage you from buying used dishes! Lead standards in ceramics have been in place for the FDA for over forty years, and, as you can see from my results, just because dishes predate those standards doesn’t mean they’re actually dangerous. If you’re seriously worried, you can stick with dishes made after the 1970s, or stick with glass plates.
If you do want something tested, I recommend the Chicago Spectro Service Laboratory. I got my results within a week or so of mailing in my plate, and the information was provided in a very straightforward way that was easy for me to understand.
I can finally stop eating my dinner off a pie plate like an animal!