Lead is a common contaminant in cookware or dishware. Luckily, there is a simple question we should be asking of manufacturers. Lead is a heavy metal that accumulate in the body over time. It is something we do not want to have in our bodies, as lead is associated with an array of potential health problems – anything from fatigue and joint paint to cancer.
Not all cookware or dishware is at risk of containing lead
The good news is that not all cookware or dishware is at risk of containing lead. For example, the following is typically of no concern in this regard:
- cast iron
- carbon steel
- stainless steel
- glass cookware, and
- glass dishes (with the exception of crystal glass)
Ceramics, including ceramic dishes, enameled cast iron, clay cookware, and slow cookers with ceramic inserts are the ones that may contain traces of lead.
5 steps to reducing exposure to lead in cookware or dishware.
- Contact the manufacturer directly. Don’t rely on conversations with salespeople at stores; especially a retail store. They simply won’t know. Plus, it’s human nature just for a salesperson to say no in response to a question as to whether one of their products contains lead, because people just don’t believe that a manufacturer would do that type of thing.
- Should you call or email a manufacturer? I think it depends on the company. I generally find that with bigger companies, you will mostly likely talk to a sales person who might not be familiar with lead issues. To learn about lead-free cookware or dishware, I think emailing is better because it will give them some time to address your question and you will have something in writing. However, I also find that emails often go answered. Thus, the best option is to talk on the phone initially, develop positive rapport with a company representative and then ask them to send you a follow up email.
- Should I believe lead-free claims? I do not mean to say that you should be paranoid and accuse of them of lying. However, when a company representative tells you that their products are lead-free, normally that means that there is no added lead. In other words, lead is not one of the materials they use. And I agree nowadays it is not used as a material anymore. However, as a result of high background levels of lead, lead is often found in ceramics as a contaminant, and so it’s really important to find out if they test for lead.
- Are there any regulations to help me buy lead-free cookware or dishware? Yes! There are two regulations to look for – FDA and California Proportion 65. In this table below you will find the FDA and California Proposition 65 lead compliance limits side by side per type of cookware/dishware. The measurements are taken in micrograms per milliliter (mcg/ml) after the item was soaked in 4% acetic acid solution.
|Vessel Class||Lead Compliance Limits|
|US FDA (mcg/ml)||Prop 65 (mcg/ml)|
|Flatware (depth <25 mm)||3.0||0.226|
|Small hollowware (< 1.1 liters)||2.0||0.100|
|Large hollowware (>1.1 liters)||1.0||0.100|
|Cups and mugs||0.5||0.100|
|Pitchers (>1.1 liters)||0.5||0.100|
Let’s put these numbers into perspective to have a better understanding of what they are.
The following discussion is interesting, but it’s based on my own math and several “worst case” assumptions, so the real picture is probably not as dire as is set forth below. It’s basically my attempt, as a consumer, to make sense of what the numbers mean as a practical matter. The first assumption is that the lead in a particular pan will leach at the same rate as in the test pans – not a safe assumption because acid greatly accelerates leaching and nobody makes food as acidic as the solution used in the tests. The second assumption is that lead will leach right up to the FDA and/or Proposition 65 limits (which is akin to assuming that everybody travels the speed limit). And thirdly, I do not have information as to how long the acidic solution is kept in the pot before the sample is taken. The longer time it is kept, the more leaching is done. The point is that your pans may well not be leaching as much as set forth below, but I wanted to know what all of this would mean from a practical standpoint, so here goes.
First of all, there are no safe levels for lead because it accumulates in the body over time. However, when lead goes into our digestive system, there is a chance not all of it will be absorbed. By the way, diets rich in fiber and lean protein are helpful to prevent absorption of lead.
The Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment created by California Proposition 65 sets forth 2 types of limits for lead per day: a maximum limit for lead as a carcinogen and a maximum amount of lead as a chemical causing reproductive toxicity, which are 15 micrograms and 0.5 micrograms respectively.
So if your cooking pot (large hollowware) is in compliance with the FDA limits, you can’t eat more than 15 milliliters of food out of it before you start increasing your risk of cancer. 15 milliliters is a little over 3 teaspoons – not very much. Considering that not all lead is absorbed, let’s say 6 teaspoons – still not much. And the safety limit for pregnant women would be much less than a teaspoon.
As you can see from the table above, the California Proposition 65 limits are either 5 or 10 times more stringent. In our case with large hollowware, it is 10 times better than the standard, so 30 teaspoons of food cooked in a pot would be okay to eat without increasing the risk of cancer.
Again, we normally do not cook food that is as acidic as the conditions in the test, probably making the cookware safer than the examples I gave above.
- How do I get piece of mind? After talking to different manufacturers, I concluded that the best way we can do at this point is to make sure that the so called lead-free ceramic cookware/dishware is tested to California Proposition 65 standards and the resulted values are below the limits set by California Proposition 65. I have been also trying to ask manufacturers to provide me with a copy of one of the reports so I can see the test results myself.
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