Question: Is cast iron safe? Do cast iron pans ever contain lead?
Cast iron (any type of iron) has a much higher melting point than lead; accordingly, undecorated, simple cast iron pots and pans – at the time of their manufacture – almost never have any lead (as it is unlikely for the metal itself to contain lead).
There are TWO exceptions to this…
- Newer cast iron might be decorated (on the outside) with a decorative high-temperature enamel finish (often very brightly colored – like with many of the Le Creuset products.) This glass-like coating on the exterior surface of the cast iron pot or pan can contain lead, cadmium and other toxicants – used to enhance or create the colors. [Sometimes a “ceramic” coating is used as a non-stick surface on insides of the pans – and those can also contain lead.] For this reason, I avoid any decorated pots or pans for my family and stick with traditional, unadorned cast iron, clear glass or stainless steel as a result. I especially like vintage/antique cast iron that can often be found at yard sales and estate sales (mine is from my grandmother and great aunt), as the quality and durability of those pans seems superior to much of the [less expensive] newer cast iron you find sold today.
- Through my advocacy work I have learned that even unadorned vintage or antique cast iron may have lead residue on the surface too—it is not actually from the original manufacturing of the pot or pan, but because [given that cast iron has the unique quality of having a melting point much higher than that of lead, AND heats up evenly and easily maintains a high temperature well, and makes for a super sturdy and durable vessel] many “lead-enthusiasts” and hobbyists – folks who melt lead to make their own bullets and toy soldiers for example – have historically used their cast iron pots to MELT LEAD, which could leave a lead-residue behind in the rougher, “micro-pitted” surface that characterizes most cast iron [this micro-pitting is one of the reasons why cast iron pots and frying pans need to be “seasoned” before initial use and subsequently re-seasoned as part of proper care.] As a result of learning that these pans may have been used in this manner, I advise that if you do not know the ORIGIN of your cast iron pans that it is a good idea to test them for lead.*****
- In a case like this (if the pan was used to melt lead and thus still has any lead residue), a swab test WILL turn pink right away.
- It’s my understanding that if your pan DOES have melted-lead residue, the micro-pitting will likely make it nearly impossible to completely clean all traces of lead out of the pan.
- Attempting to season a pot or pan that is positive for any level of lead [due to past use for melting lead] may also fume the lead into your environment – which can instantly poison your family.
- Any vessel previously used for melting lead should never used for cooking — it should be discarded.
- A swab tests positive at 600 parts per million lead and above, so if your pan turns a LeadCheck swab pink is likely that the surface lead on the inside of the pan is least 600 ppm lead (and levels well below that can be toxic if on a food prep surface).
- Note: if it turns darker brighter orange (vs. the yellowish orange in the solution), that is just the swab picking up more of the iron of the pan – NOT the swab detecting lead—the reagent’s direct contact with lead always results in the swab turning a pink or red color.
As always, please let me know if you have any other questions about this or other areas where lead and lead toxicity might interact with your life.