Are you skeptically gazing at grandma’s old dishware and wondering how to tell if dishes have lead?
If so, you’re in the right place.
Look, lead poisoning is no joke; it’s even lethal at times, and children are especially vulnerable.
In 1999-2000 – 434,000 children in the US alone had elevated lead levels in their blood.
And the main culprit? Old, colorful dishware.
But, lead in dishes won’t always threaten your health.
Only select dishes with certain traits…
So, in this post, you’ll discover how to tell if dishes have lead, how to test for lead, and how to avoid exposure.
If you’re short on time, use the Table of Contents below to skip around.
Let’s jump right in!
Table of Contents
Why is Lead in Dishes?
Lead-containing dishware seems odd, but here’s the reason why lead is in dishes…
Ceramics begin their journey as clay, which is porous.
So, a glaze covers the ceramic and seals it shut, helping to carry food and liquid.
Lead helps fuse the glaze onto the clay for a more durable, smooth, and non-porous finish.
Also, lead compounds produce intense colors, like red, orange, and yellow.
Now, you might think, “this is unbelievable!”
I mean, lead is dangerous stuff!
Well, here’s the explanation from Mike Cashtock, an FDA consumer safety officer…
“Lead-glazed stoneware is safe when properly manufactured and bound in the glaze, but…
The issue is pottery baked at inadequate or uncontrolled temperatures. When this happens, the lead is not fully joined and leaches into food.”
While the FDA is strict on lead standards now (which we’ll discuss later), outliers slip through the cracks…
For example, some factories in China are not FDA-certified. Yet still, produce unregulated lead glazes on dishware.
Because of this, the next section is crucial.
How to know if dishes have lead
You won’t know whether a dish has lead by sight.
But, you can check for some red flags.
Here’s a graphic to help you identify dishes with lead. Afterward, we’ll examine the details.
- Terra cotta & other lead-glazed pottery from the southwest, such as Mexican bean pots. The low-temperature baking doesn’t seal the glazing.
- Hand-made tableware with an irregular shape & appearance.
- Decorated traditional pottery used in some Asian communities. Lead in vintage dishes, especially made before 1971 – more on that later.
- There’s likely lead in china plates & bowls if decorations are above the glaze instead of underneath (if you can feel the decoration when rubbing your finger over the dish). Or if you notice brushstrokes above the glazed surface.
- If the decorations are worn-out, the lead hazard increases dramatically.
- Antique tableware from relatives, thrift shops, flea markets, or garage sales. Especially if the piece is ancient or the manufacturer is foreign.
- Dishware with corroded, worn-out glazing (or a gray residue on your towel after you wash a piece).
- Lead & cadmium in dishes is frequent with bright red, orange, & yellow color patterns (unless you’re sure the creator uses lead-free glaze).
How you get lead poisoning from dishes
There are several ways to get lead poisoning.
You can breathe in lead dust from old, chipped paint or by drinking water from old leaded pipes.
Or, as this article suggests, from lead in your dishware.
But, how much lead leaches depends on several factors, including:
- The amount of lead in the dish
- The type of glazing
- What type of food or liquid is in the dish (examples coming up)
- Amount of time that food spends on the dish
- Age of the dish (older, worn-out glaze leaches more often)
- Heating & cleaning habits (using the microwave or dishwasher)
- Glaze crazing or “glaze crackle” (when your dish is full of cracks). Plates with crazing are risky because the cracks allow easier leaching. The gaps also harbor bacteria.
So, worst-case-scenario, you ingest lead and get poisoned.
Here’s what you can expect…
What lead poisoning does to your body
Here’s what happens when you ingest lead…
First, lead enters your bloodstream.
Then, it travels to your brain, liver, kidneys, and bones.
From there, the lead collects in your bones and teeth.
After that, over continued exposure, lead levels build inside of those areas.
And long-term exposure will cause permanent brain damage – even death at high levels.
Now, first and foremost, there are no safe levels of lead in your blood.
But levels around 5-10 micrograms can bring about symptoms.
Common symptoms of lead poisoning in adults include…
- Joint, muscle, & belly pain
- High blood pressure
- Memory problems & trouble concentrating
- Mood changes
People most at risk
Pregnant women and young children are most vulnerable to lead poisoning.
Children absorb 4–5 times as much lead as adults. From this, kids suffer poor development of the brain and nervous system.
If a woman is pregnant, the fetus can absorb the lead – resulting in miscarriages and development issues.
Other effects of lead poisoning in children at lower levels include…
- Reduced intelligence & attention span
- Increased anti-social behavior
- Liver problems
And at higher lead levels…
- Behavioral disorders
- Mental retardation
So, you understand how to tell if dishes have lead, how lead enters your body, and what it does to your health…
Now, here are easy steps to avoid exposure from lead in dishes.
How to Prevent lead exposure from dishware
- Don’t heat food or liquids in leaded dishware (cooking or microwaving will fast-forward the leaching process).
- Don’t store food or liquid in lead-glazed dishes (no longer than a day).
- Don’t store acidic foods in leaded ceramic crockery (acidic foods will suck lead from dishes faster). Examples are citrus fruits, apples, pasta sauce, soy sauce, salad dressing, fruit juices, soft drinks, alcohol, & coffee.
- Avoid the dishwasher (this can damage the surface & increase leaching the next time using your dish). Plus, you’ll contaminate other plates in the dishwasher.
- Question unregulated dishware pre-dating 1971.
- Ask: If you can, contact the store or company selling the dishware. Question the salesperson or customer service if the dishes meet regulations (more on allowable lead levels soon).
As for anything, your best bet is to apply your judgment.
If the dish appears questionable to you, don’t eat from it.
If you know your antique dinnerware contains lead, don’t do this…
Store tonight’s spaghetti with sauce in the fridge overnight, then reheat your seconds in the microwave tomorrow.
Instead, save the plate for decoration.
How to test dishes for lead
While the tips mentioned above are a great starting point, the only way to determine if dishes have lead is to test. There are several methods how to test ceramics for lead – your two main options are…
- Test the pottery surface with an at-home lead test kit, or…
- Send the dish to a laboratory (the best way to test china for lead leaching).
1. Lead Test Kit for Dishes (DIY)
Lead test kits allow anyone to test for lead in ceramics right at home.
These inexpensive, chemically-treated swabs work similarly to home pregnancy tests (hence my cheesy graphic above).
When you swab your plate, the lead-check pen will react with leachable lead and turn bright red.
The instructions are super simple.
But, you should use a chipped section of the glaze for more accuracy.
Or, peel back layers of glaze with a small knife (carefully) – this allows contact with all of the paint.
Now, here’s the downfall with lead swab tests…
They won’t display an exact amount of lead, only a simple yes/no response.
So, the following method will better assess your hazard level by giving specifics.
2. Laboratory testing
Laboratories provide your most accurate and reliable lead testing.
Labs can tell if pottery is food safe and meets FDA standards by using two primary methods:
An XRF is an x-ray gun for dishware.
This device will identify lead by measuring electron reactions in the material. Lead molecules offer unique signals.
XRF tests will accurately measure the amount of lead present – without harming your dish.
But there’s a trade-off.
XRF’s won’t determine how much lead leaches from the dish. Only lead present.
Leach testing is when the lab fills your dish with an acidic solution.
These tests will discover how much lead (if any) leaches from the glaze.
The downfall? This test will (likely) destroy your dish.
Where to find a lab
The EPA has a list of accredited lead testing sites throughout the country.
This way, you can find a lab closest to you and test your dishware.
Are there laws against lead in tableware?
Yes, here’s what I meant earlier about 1971.
Nowadays, the FDA restricts lead in dishware – but, before 1971, this wasn’t the case.
So, it’s vital to question older vintage plates, as mentioned earlier.
Now, the FDA doesn’t need tableware to be 100% lead-free.
But at least lead-safe.
In other words, the amount of leachable lead cannot pass three parts per million.
If the dish exceeds three parts per million, a label MUST be visible.
Hunt for one of the following labels:
- “For Decorative Purposes Only”
- “Not for Food Use”
- “May Poison Food”
- “Glaze Contains Lead”
- “Food Use May Result in Lead Poisoning”
- “Not for Food Use – Food Consumed from this Vessel May be Harmful”
Also, California published rules on leaded tableware in 1986, titled “Proposition 65.”
This law is stricter than the FDA, with a leachable limit of 0.226 parts per million.
To determine if this rule applies to your dishware, scan for the label below…
Difference between lead-safe and lead-free dinnerware
You’ll notice these two phrases on products everywhere. So, let’s avoid any confusion.
Lead-free means there’s no lead in your dishes.
And lead-safe means a product contains lead, but no leaching occurs, or…
The amount leached is within regulation.
Safest lead-free dishes
With everything said above, you might ask…
“So, this all sounds great, but what are the safest lead-free dishes?!”
Here’s the answer.
Choosing lead-free dinnerware is all about minimal decoration or color.
The more colored and decorated your dishes are, the higher the chance of lead.
Now, this doesn’t mean all colorful dinner plates contain lead, but…
The safest bet is to score something plain-Jane!
I know, yawn.
But consider this, instead of dishware decorating your table, let your food talk!
Also, there’s usually no lead in glass dishes (but verify it’s not leaded crystal).
Another essential tip – buy new.
Old vintage dishware from eBay or thrift stores (even if it’s plain white) often contains lead.
So, take a look at our review of lead-free dinnerware brands on our post – “The Safest Dishes to Use at Home!
We dive deep into Libbey, Anchor Hocking, Fiestaware, and other lead-free plates!
Frequently Asked Questions
Does vintage Corelle have lead?
Virtually all Corelle dishware made before the summer of 2000 contains lead in its glaze and decorations. If you own vintage Corelle dinnerware from before mid-2000, your best bet is to reserve those dishes for decoration.
Does new Pyrex contain lead?
No, but vintage Pyrex does contain lead, specifically colorful and decorated pieces. But, the new Pyrex is lead and cadmium-free soda-lime glass. Even if there is lead present, it’s well below the regulation leach limit and harmless.
Does Fiestaware have lead?
No. Fiestaware dinnerware has been lead-free ever since 1986. But, vintage Fiestaware from before 1986 contains lead. The EPA recommends not eating off of vintage Fiestaware.
Is glazed stoneware safe?
Manufacturers use lead glaze to help seal the stoneware. When fired at high temperatures in a kiln, ceramicware is food-safe, and lead shouldn’t leach. If improperly fired, however, the lead will release into food.
Does terracotta contain lead?
Terra cotta earthenware contains lead in its glaze to seal the clay and create bright colors. When properly baked, the lead is sealed into the glazing and shouldn’t leach. If improperly baked, lead can leach into foods freely.
Does bone china contain lead?
Bone china does not contain lead or cadmium. Instead, it’s a type of porcelain created from bone ash, feldspathic material, and kaolin. This makes bone china one of the strongest and safest dishware materials out there.
Is lead crystal safe?
Lead crystal contains up to 24% lead in the glass, which means food and liquid will contact lead. But, it’s still possible to handle lead crystal safely. The FDA advises the following: Don’t use lead crystal daily. Don’t use leaded glasses around children. And don’t store foods in crystal for longer than a week or two.
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