Some pottery and ceramic ware are made using clay, paints and glazes that contain lead, which can leach into food and cause lead poisoning. This is more likely to happen if hot or acidic foods are eaten from or stored in the dishes.
The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene recently announced that it had uncovered 15 cases of lead poisoning in children and adults that were due to the use of pottery and ceramic dishes that had been imported or brought from other countries.
Lead poisoning is a serious issue for pregnant women and young children. Lead is a metal that is commonly found in nature, but the human body has no use for it. Exposure to high levels of lead over a period of time can cause damage to the brain and the central nervous system and can slow a child’s growth and development. In children, it can also cause learning and behavioral difficulties and problems with hearing and speech. These serious effects can lead to a lower IQ, problems with the ability to pay attention, and poor performance in school. In adults, exposure to high levels of lead over time can cause high blood pressure.
If a pregnant woman is exposed to lead over a period of time, it can pass from her to her unborn baby. High lead levels in the mother’s body also increase the risk for a miscarriage or a premature birth.
Lead leaching into food from dishes and other ceramics is not the most common source of lead poisoning. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the main sources of lead poisoning in children are lead dust due wall paints that contain lead and lead in water pipes. Lead has been found in some toys and jewelry that children might put in their mouths. Lead dust can be brought into the home inadvertently from construction or renovation sites, from some types of manufacturing sites, or from firing ranges.
Lead poisoning is usually a gradual thing. One exposure to lead, unless it is a very high amount, won’t hurt you. But regular exposure to lead allows it to build up in your body and cause problems.
In the United States, regulations from the Food and Drug Administration control the amount of lead that is allowed in dishes, plates, mugs, and lead crystal glasses.
To avoid the risk of lead poisoning from dishes and glassware, check items to make sure they are safe to be used with food. Check for labels on ceramic items and pottery to see if they say they are for decorative use only. If you aren’t sure a plate, dish, or mug is safe to use for serving food, don’t use it.
You should avoid using any pottery, dishes, ceramics, or glasses that were purchased overseas unless they are marked as safe for use with food and beverages. Many people who travel to other countries may bring back colorful ceramics and bowls as souvenirs. These may contain high levels of lead because they don’t meet United States regulations for lead content. If you don’t know for sure if a piece of tableware is safe for food, use it only as a decoration.
Be careful about using antique or heirloom china and glassware. The FDA regulations about lead in dishes and other tableware were put in place in 1971. China and glasses that have been handed down in a family may contain higher levels of lead than are allowed now. Old dishes may have cracks in the glaze that can increase the amount of lead that can leach out and into food.
If you are pregnant or breastfeeding and believe that you have been exposed to lead, ask your healthcare provider to be tested. Ask for testing if you live in an older home with peeling paint on the walls. Your health provider will take a blood sample to determine lead levels in your blood. Depending on what state you live in, this is not a test that is done automatically during pregnancy. In some states like New York, children must be tested for lead levels in their blood at 1 and 2 years of age. Most insurance companies will cover the cost of testing for lead exposure.
If you are breastfeeding and have high levels of lead in your body, you can pass lead on to your baby through your milk. Even if you are not being exposed to lead while you are pregnant or breastfeeding, if you had been exposed to lead over a long period of time in the past, it may have built up in your bones or teeth and be released while you are pregnant or breastfeeding.
In adults, a blood level of lead over 5 micrograms per deciliter is considered significant. A safe blood level of lead in children has not been established.