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Alameda County, CA,

Larry Brooks
Healthy Homes Department
Including the Lead Poisoning Prevention Program

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Possible Sources of Lead: Ceramic Dishes & Pots

close up of ceramic dishes

Lead has been used to make ceramic dishes for centuries, often being added to a glaze for the bright colors and for the smooth, transparent glaze. As these ceramic dishes were used to store, prepare, and consume food or drinks from - the lead in them would leach out into the food or the beverage and then get into a person's body as they consumed that food. With newer laws being passed, states like California require ceramic dishes that have dangerous levels of lead in them to have a warning label: in the form of a yellow triangle. However, as older ceramic dishes with lead continue to be used, they can become a source of lead poisoning for you and your family.

How does lead get into the body from ceramic dishes?

Lead can leach out from the surface of the dish and get into foods or beverages when it is stored, prepared, or eaten from a ceramic dish that contains lead. When the food is eaten, the lead gets into the body. The amount of lead that leaches from a dish depends on how the dish is used and what kind of food is put in it.

For example:

  • Acid foods and drinks will leach lead out of dishes much faster than non-acid foods. Spaghetti sauce, salsa, orange juice, applesauce, coffee, tea, cola drinks and salad dressing are examples of acid foods.
  • If you aren't sure about the lead in your dishes, you should not use them for storing food. The longer the food stays in contact with a dish surface containing lead, the more lead will be leached into the food.
  • Heating up food in a lead-containing dish can speed up the lead-leaching process.

A combination of these factors will make the problem even worse. An example would be storing spaghetti in a lead-containing ceramic dish and then heating it in the microwave.

Source: California Department of Public Health

What types of dishes and glazes may contain lead?

You cannot tell for sure whether a dish has lead just by looking at it. However, some types of dishes are more likely to have lead.

Watch for:

  • Traditional glazed terra cotta ware made in some Latin American countries, such as Mexican bean pots. They are often quite rustic and usually have a transparent glaze. Unless they are specifically labeled as lead-free or sin plomo (Spanish), use of these pots for cooking is especially hazardous and should be stopped at once.
  • Highly decorated traditional dishes used in some Asian communities.
  • Home-made or hand-crafted tableware, either from the U.S. or a foreign country, unless you are sure the maker uses a lead-free glaze.
  • Bright colors or decorations on the inside dish surfaces that touch the food or drink. This includes the upper rim of a cup or bowl.
  • Decorations on top of the glaze instead of beneath it. If the decorations are rough or raised, if you can feel the decoration when you rub your finger over the dish, or if you can see brush strokes above the glazed surface, the decoration is probably on top of the glaze. If the decoration has begun to wear away, there may be an even greater lead hazard.
  • Antique tableware handed down in families, or found in antique stores, flea markets and garage sales. These dishes were made before lead in tableware was regulated.
  • Corroded glaze, or a dusty or chalky grey residue on the glaze after the piece has been washed. Tableware in this condition may represent a serious lead hazard and should not be used. Lead is rarely found in plain white dishes. Lead-containing glazes or decorations on the outside of dishes or non-food surfaces are generally not a problem. (See #10 below regarding use of dishwashers for dishes containing lead.)

Source: California Department of Public Health

What is Proposition 65?

Proposition 65 is a law that requires businesses in California to provide warnings when they expose the public to significant amounts of chemicals that cause cancer, birth defects, or reproductive harm. Lead is one of the chemicals covered by this law.

Tableware with lead levels below Proposition 65 standards is considered safe to use. Tableware that exceeds Proposition 65 lead levels may be sold, but only with a written warning. The U. S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also regulates the sale of tableware that contains lead. Tableware exceeding the FDA levels cannot be legally sold in the U.S. For more detailed information about regulations governing lead in tableware, please see the Lead in Tableware Resource List page.

What does the yellow triangle on a ceramic dish mean?

a yellow triangle

Dishes with a yellow triangle have been tested and have been found to leach lead into food in amounts greater than the Proposition 65 warning levels. The triangle is there to help you make an informed choice. Many dishes that are being sold don't require a Proposition 65 warning label for lead.

Source: California Department of Public Health

What to do

The safest practice is not to use tableware that you are unsure of with food or drink. This is especially true for tableware used by children, pregnant women, or nursing mothers. Follow these precautions:

  • Do not heat food in dishes that contain or might contain lead. Cooking or microwaving speeds the lead-leaching process.
  • Do not store foods in dishes that contain or might contain lead. The longer food stays in contact with a dish surface that leaches lead, the more lead will be drawn into the food.
  • Do not use dishes that contain or might contain lead with highly acidic foods or drinks. Acidic foods and drinks leach lead out of dishes much faster than non-acid foods. Common acidic foods include foods that contain citrus fruits, apples, tomatoes, soy sauce, and salad dressing. Many drinks are also acidic, such as fruit juices, sodas (especially cola drinks), alcoholic beverages, coffee and tea. Common non-acidic foods include rice or potatoes; water and milk are non-acidic drinks.
  • If you do not know if a dish contains lead, do not use it in your everyday routine. Any combination of the first three factors can increase the risk of exposing you to lead. An example would be storing spaghetti with tomato sauce in a lead-containing ceramic dish, then heating it in the same dish in the microwave.
  • Do not wash ceramic dishes that may contain lead in a dishwasher. If a dish contains lead, using the dishwasher can damage the glazed surface. This can make it more likely to leach lead into food the next time it is used. In addition, in some cases, lead may contaminate other dishes in the dishwasher.

Source: California Department of Public Health

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