Lead in Dishware

The Problem: Lead has been used for millennia to make dishware durable and to make colored glazes bright and glasslike. In the U.S., government standards over the past forty years have strictly limited lead in dishware, but some imported items may still pose lead threats. In Mexico, a 2006 study found that lead from pottery remains a major source of exposure, and health agencies still warn consumers to avoid cooking or storing food in imported bean pots, decorative pieces and other ceramics from Latin America, Asia and other areas.

What You Can Do: While most dishware sold in the U.S. conforms to legal lead limits, it is not always easy for consumers to know about the lead content of specific items. Given that dozens of producers market hundreds of new varieties of dishware every year, it is impossible to track every item and its lead content. Types of dishware that may pose lead risks include:

  • Terra cotta pottery from Latin America, especially more rustic items with a transparent glaze;
  • Highly decorated Asian dishware;
  • Dishware with food contact surfaces containing bright colored decorations;
  • Glazed pieces with rough, raised or worn decorations, indicating that the decoration is on top of the glaze;
  • Glaze that is corroded, or any item coated with a dusty or chalky residue after washing;
  • Antique dishware or dishware made before 1970;
  • Crystal glassware; while posing little risk with occasional use, leaded crystal glassware should not be used by children or pregnant women, and food or liquids should never be stored in lead crystal.

Concerned consumers can ask retailers and manufacturers if they know the lead content of the products they sell. Home lead test kits may detect surface lead on dishware: a positive test indicates a hazard, but since the test may not detect lower but still significant lead levels, a negative result is no guarantee that dishware is safe.

Federal and state dishware standards

In 1971, FDA first set limits on lead in dishware. Under the agency’s rules (updated in 1993), dishware (flatware) cannot leach more than 3 micrograms of lead per milliliter of solution (ug/mL). Limits are stricter for cups, mugs, pitchers and other “hollowware.” FDA rules also state that ceramics that leach lead above these levels must be labeled as “Not for Food Use,” or must have holes in the surface that make the item unsuitable for food use.

In California, consumer protection standards exceed the FDA rules and were first applied to dishware in a 1993 legal agreement reached between the California Attorney General and ten leading dishware makers. Under the agreement , flatware may not leach more than 0.226 parts per million (ppm) of lead (0.1 ppm for cups, mugs and all other items) unless labels warn consumers that the item may pose a health threat (the label may also be accompanied by a yellow triangle). Dishware leaching less than 0.226 parts per million of lead is sometimes labeled “lead safe”; dishware should only be labeled “lead free” if it contains no lead.

To summarize:

  • Dishware leaching lead above 3 ug/mL of lead is banned under FDA rules.
  • Dishware leaching lead between 0.226 ppm and 3 ug/mL of lead can be sold in California only with a warning label.
  • Dishware leaching less than 0.226 ppm of lead may be labeled “lead safe.”
  • Dishware should be labeled “lead free” only if it does not contain lead.

If you live in the Bay Area and have dishware that you would like to have tested for lead, please call Matt Nevins at CEH, 510-655-3900 x318.