A lot is being said about lead in toys, and parents are rushing to stores to buy test kits, especially for toys imported from China. Lead exposure, particularly in children, causes mental, physical, and behavioral impairment, and the effects cannot be undone.
But not all lead comes from China. Manufacturers and craftspeople all over the world, including the U.S., have used plenty of it. Lead has very desirable qualities: It lends malleability to metals, makes paints brighter and easier to apply, and imparts brilliance and weight to glass. It has often been a key component of pewter and brass. It's plentiful and cheap. How many lead-contaminated items do you think you have in your home?
Here's a list of possible culprits:
- Glazed pottery you inherited, found in the attic, bought at a yard sale or antiques store, or purchased outside the U.S.; highly decorated pottery and heirloom china, especially if painted; any pottery or china with decorations on top of the glaze, not under it. Handmade items are particularly suspect. Be especially cautious if the glaze is flaking or corroded. If you notice a chalky gray residue on the glaze after washing, that's a sign of lead.
- Lead crystal decanters and glasses, often used to store or serve alcoholic beverages.
- Old pewter or brass may contain lead. Modern pewter is mostly tin, and lead-free.
In the late 1960s, as part of its ongoing campaign against lead, the FDA began setting standards for lead in tableware. Items made in the U.S. or made for export to the U.S. are not allowed to contain lead above certain levels or must be labeled as containing lead, but a few items still slip through. In 1992, however, FDA inspectors conducted surveillance of all imported ceramic products used for food, ranging from expensive china to cheap coffee mugs, and found that only a tiny percentage had unacceptable lead levels.
If you have any suspect dishes or glassware, retire them from service, and use them only for display.
Most risky: using lead-containing pieces for highly acidic foods and beverages such as tomato sauce, orange juice, wine, vinegar, and coffee, which cause lead to leach quickly, especially if they are hot. Storing foods or beverages in them is also dangerous. It's probably okay to serve a non-acidic food on a dish that contains lead—or to drink water from a lead-crystal goblet, or even wine from it on special occasions. But don't serve food on any dishes with cracked glaze, unless you have tested them for lead. Never microwave, bake, or roast foods in a dish that contains lead. It will heat up, and lead will leach into the contents.
Getting the lead out
? The Consumer Product Safety Commission has called all lead-testing kits (sold at hardware stores) unreliable. If you really need to know whether some item contains lead, take it to a lab for testing. The EPA provides a list of accredited lead-testing labs on its website. Or look for a lab in the Yellow Pages.
? If you have questions about the lead content of brand-name pieces (such as Waterford, Corning, or Lenox), contact the manufacturer. Major department stores and importers require their wares to be lead-free. For handmade pottery, ask the potter or check for a label.
? If you are worried about a child's exposure via dishes or toys, call your pediatrician or local health department. Physicians often check a child's lead levels in his or her first year, and up to age six. The government requires that children at high risk (for instance, those living in older houses, which may have lead paint) be tested. State laws vary. If your child tests high, you will be given specific advice and assistance in limiting exposure.
? Though lead is not good for anybody, adults will probably not be harmed by low exposures. But many scientists think that lifetime exposure may contribute to memory loss, hypertension, and other problems often blamed on aging. Avoid lead when you can. If that beloved coffee mug was handmade and the glaze is corroding, stop using it.