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Some "Lead-Free" Pottery May Actually Contain Lead

A vacation to Mexico would not be complete without a visit to an open-air market to purchase some of the hand-painted, gorgeous pottery. The colors and designs have become so popular that they are imported to be sold in major department stores and boutique shops, as well. (The fish platter shown in the photo was purchased by one of our associates on a vacation to Ixtapa, Mexico.)

Today, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says it has confirmed reports from local and state agencies that traditional ceramic pottery made by several manufacturers in Mexico—and labeled “lead free”—in fact contains lead.

It’s not that the manufacturers are lying. It’s more about hidden sources of lead in the process. Pottery made with earthenware must undergo glazing, a process in which a thin, glass-like coating is applied and fused onto the surface of the clay. This seals the pottery’s pores, allowing it to hold food or liquid. The glaze fuses to the pottery when it is fired in a kiln, a special oven used to bake clay.

“In the past, potters have usually used lead glazes,” says Michael Kashtock, Ph.D., and FDA consumer safety officer and food scientist. “Today, many of the potters in Mexico have switched to non-lead glazes. However, they may be using old kilns that were once used for firing lead-containing glazes.”

Kashtock says that while these potters believe they are making a lead-free product, the kilns they are using may be contaminated with lead residues from prior firings of lead glazed pottery. “‘Lead-free’ glaze can then become contaminated during the firing,” he says.

Why You Should Care

This is important because lead from pottery can leach into foods that touch it…if that food is eaten, it gets into the body where it can be absorbed into the bloodstream.

Lead is toxic. In large amounts, it can affect brain development in children, potentially leading to lower IQ. In adults, too much lead can cause many other serious problems, including brain and nervous system damage, high blood pressure, kidney problems, impotency, digestive problems, and anemia.

What to Look For in Your Pottery

If you own earthenware pottery, especially if it was made in Mexico, you’ll want to avoid using it for food…or take extra steps to assure it is safe. Earthenware pottery has a distinctive orange clay color (see attached photo, and look at the reverse side of the fish platter). You should be most concerned if you purchased the pottery from a flea market or street vendor…if it appears handmade…if it is more than 20 years old…if it is damaged or worn.

According to the FDA, if you have pottery that fits these descriptions or are concerned about pieces you own, you can:

  • Look for a warning label on the pottery. If the pottery was made for use only as a decorative item, it may have a warning (such as “Not for Food Use—May Poison Food”) stamped onto the bottom.
  • Test the pottery. Lead-testing kits, which are sold in hardware stores and online, come with swabs and instructions. They do not damage the pottery. With most, the swab will change colors if lead leaches onto the swab. If a test reveals a positive result for leachable lead, don’t use the pottery for cooking, serving, or storing food or drinks.
  • If you are unable to test the pottery or otherwise determine that it is not from a reliable manufacturer, don’t use it for cooking, serving, or storing food or drinks.
  • Be aware that no amount of washing, boiling, or other process can remove lead from pottery.

It’s also important to know that the pottery is only dangerous if you use it for serving or eating food. Like the fish platter from Ixtapa, these pieces can still make beautiful decorations in your home.

To read the full FDA Consumer Health Information update, click here: Some “Lead-Free” Pottery Can Still Taint Food

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