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Is Vintage Dishware Safe to Use?

Why you should think twice before busting out your collectibles for the holidays.

Are you someone who collects antiques or enjoys scrounging local flea markets in search of the perfect vintage collectibles? Or perhaps you keep ceramic dishware or crystalware in your kitchen cabinets that've been passed down from previous generations and get dusted off for the holidays. While retro touches in the kitchen are fun and budget-friendly, you might want to think twice about using your family heirlooms or other collectibles when preparing, serving or storing food or drinks. Vintage dishware (which technically means older than 20 years) can potentially expose you and your family to poisonous lead. We break down what vintage and ceramic items might have lead, why it's important, and what you can do about it.

Lead in ceramics (think mugs, casserole dishes, serving platters and more)

Unfortunately, plates, bowls, and mugs, can release lead into our food and drinks. Traditionally lead was used as a main ingredient in the paint and glaze for most ceramic dishware because it provides strength and gives the dishware a smooth, clear finish. Lead and cadmium (another toxic heavy metal) can also add vibrancy to paint colors, making it a lucrative addition to ceramics. Areas of kitchenware that might have higher levels of lead include decorative painting, especially brightly colors (think red, yellow!), and decals or logos that are added onto glazed pieces.

Before 1971, there were no limits on lead in dinnerware and ceramics, so vintage items from before then are very likely to have unsafe levels of lead. Starting in 1971, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) began to enforce limits on the amount of leachable lead in ceramics and tableware. Acceptable leachable lead concentrations in ceramics have decreased since then as the danger posed by lead-contaminated ceramics has become increasingly apparent. While incredibly important, these limits do not completely get rid of lead in ceramic dishware. The current limit is 0.5 μg/mL and ceramics are tested when they are new, not as they wear over the lifetime of a product. If you have dinnerware that was made during this time, it's possible that the allowable lead limits are still above what is considered acceptable now. In fact, it's still possible to buy new ceramics that contain lead, especially if they were made in a country that has weaker lead standards than the US.

Lead in crystal (think cocktail glasses, decanters, champagne flutes)

Just because ceramics are regulated doesn't mean there are lead limits for everything. Even though ceramics have lead limits, there are no current Federal standards for the amount of lead allowed to be leached from crystal glassware. Traditional glassware contains around 50% silica (sand) and no lead content, whereas "crystal" glassware is made of silica and lead oxide and is typically used for champagne, wine, or spirits. The use of lead in crystal glassware makes it easier to work with, since it allows the glass to be formed at lower temperatures. Even though it's delicate and pretty, crystal glassware has a big risk of leaching lead. The FDA has issued warnings against giving children or infants "leaded crystal baby bottles, christening cups, or glassware" and against storing food or drink in leaded crystal containers. Many manufacturers no longer make leaded crystal, but if you have any vintage crystal, it's very likely that it has unsafe levels of lead.

Why Lead is a Big Deal (still!)

Lead risks seem to pop up somewhere new all the time, and lead in vintage dishware is not any more or less important than the usual lead suspects. Lead is especially harmful for children. Their tiny, developing bodies absorb much more lead than adults do, making their brains and nervous systems more vulnerable and sensitive to the damage caused by lead exposure. Pregnant women and women of child-bearing age are also very sensitive to the risks from lead because, over time, lead accumulates in our bodies and becomes absorbed in our bones. When a woman becomes pregnant, lead is released from our bones and can be passed on to the fetus in utero or while breastfeeding. This can cause the baby to be born prematurely, born with low birth weight, can impact the baby's growth and development, can increase the likelihood of learning or behavioral problems, and puts mothers at risk for miscarriage. There is also sufficient scientific evidence that lead exposure causes cardiovascular diseases in adults as well.

How to Avoid Lead in the Kitchen and Dinnerware

  1. Don't use vintage dishware to store, prepare or eat or drink from:
  • Don't store food in any dishes, antiques or collectibles that may contain lead, especially pieces made before 1971. Use vintage pieces for decoration only.
  • Women of child-bearing age should not use crystal to consume wine (or for any other purposes for that matter).
  • Don't store foods or beverages (especially acidic juices, alcoholic beverages, or vinegar) in crystalware or vintage dishware.
  1. Get your vintage and imported dishware tested for lead:
  • Always test vintage and imported dishware for lead or conduct a lead test yourself using a home lead test kit. LeadCheck ™ testing kits, sometimes called swab tests, are inexpensive and available in hardware stores. These kits are meant for paint and not ceramics, so they are not completely accurate.
  • Lab tests determine how much lead is present in products using acid or other dissolving agents. However, these methods can damage the product. To have your ceramics tested for lead, contact a certified lab by searching the National Lead Laboratory Accreditation Program List.
  • Your state and local health departments may have more resources and services for lead testing.
  1. Do your research to make sure your dishware does not contain lead:
  • Before buying imported ceramics to be used for food and drinks, ask the supplier, the maker, or the FDA about the product's lead safety. Ask if ceramics and glass are lead-free.
  • Before buying artisanal pieces from neighborhood or craft shows, ask the artisan if they use lead in glazes/paints.
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