Most ceramic dishware is safe to use as long as it doesn’t contain leachable lead or cadmium.
Lead in Ceramics
Lead has traditionally been used in ceramic glazes and decorations to give it a glasslike finish and allow colors and patterns to show through. Lead exposure is a serious health concern and every exposure is harmful, particularly to children.1 The EPA does not consider dishware to be a primary source of exposure but because lead is ubiquitous in the environment, including soil, food and water, it should be avoided when possible. 2 Fortunately, many manufacturers now use lead-free glazes, although lead may still be present in low amounts due to contamination of raw materials from the environment. Ceramic that is properly fired and doesn’t add lead as an ingredient shouldn’t leach.3
Cadmium in Ceramics
Cadmium is often added to glazes to create bright red and orange colors. It is present in low levels in the environment and primary sources of human exposure are through certain foods and smoking. Higher levels of exposure in children have been linked to neurological problems.4
Regulations for Ceramicware
There are regulations to keep consumers safe from lead and cadmium exposure but they are limited. The FDA randomly tests ceramicware for leachable lead and cadmium and keeps a record of products that have failed. California Proposition 65, which requires warning labels on products that contain harmful chemicals at unsafe levels , has a much more stringent standard for lead and cadmium. If you’re buying new dishware, choose products that do not carry a Proposition 65 warning label. As an extra step before purchasing, check with the manufacturer to ensure the product doesn’t exceed Proposition 65 lead and cadmium limits.
Are Your Dishes Safe?
If you can’t determine if your current dishes were tested to meet California Proposition 65 or if they were purchased before the guidelines were published in 1987, you can follow these general guidelines.
- Plain white dishware is more likely to be free of lead or cadmium.
- These types of ceramic dishes are more likely to be a source of lead or cadmium:
- Handmade (unless you can confirm the ingredients and proper firing)
- Chipped or damaged
- Ceramics colored red, yellow, or orange
- Labelled as “Not Food Safe”
- Ceramics with decorations on top of the glaze or rim
- You can test for lead using lead test strips. A negative reading doesn’t guarantee there is no lead, but a positive reading will tell you there is lead.
- Tamara Rubin of leadsafemamma.com, uses special equipment to test individual products for lead content and reports on her findings. Keep in mind that even if a product tests positive for lead content it does not tell you anything about whether lead will leach out into food. Properly fired ceramics shouldn’t leach but you may choose to avoid dishware with lead content, particularly if levels are high, as a precautionary measure.