Ask Tamara: Does cast iron have lead?

AskTamaraAsk Tamara

Question: Is cast iron safe?  Do cast iron pans ever contain lead?

Answer:
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…

  1. 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.iu
  2. 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.

10 Responses to Ask Tamara: Does cast iron have lead?

  1. Nelina October 5, 2017 at 7:31 pm #

    Hi Tamara,

    Your posts are really valuable.
    May I ask you which Dutch oven you advise to cook acidic foods. I have been doing my research ; but my head is spinning now because of conflicting data.

    • Tamara October 6, 2017 at 8:04 am #

      I’m sorry. I don’t have a recommendation as I don’t use that type of product. I would imagine a natural clay one (no glaze) might be your best bet… I have seen them in red clay and white clay. The clay base is less likely to have lead than almost all of the glazes used for these things.

  2. Nelina October 6, 2017 at 5:52 pm #

    Thank you. In fact I know that’s the best option.. but I have electric TOP. I have been using clay pots to cook rice and prepare acidic food ; but on gas TOP. Could you please let me know stainless steel options you would recommend. I heard aluminium will leach to food if it’s not good quality.

    • AJackson January 28, 2018 at 2:22 am #

      Kindly be aware that lead has not been used in enamelware glazes, including cast iron, since at least the 1960s to 1970s. That’s at least fifty years’ worth of enamel that is safe for use, including *all* the enamelware made today.

      • Tamara January 28, 2018 at 11:51 am #

        Actually that is not true. Much of the modern enamelware I have tested has had at least some lead. Primarily things like Le Creuset. It is also often positive for high levels of cadmium.

  3. Rachel Janzen April 25, 2018 at 12:16 pm #

    Dear Tamara,
    I bought my son a set of dishes from Totally today – Made in China -It has a lighthouse glazed in the middle and around the edges…
    Do you think this is safe or have you every tested this brand. It is about 10 years old at this point. Also, I have contacted Churchill England Willow to inquire about their dishes.
    any results?

  4. Magdeline July 3, 2018 at 4:18 am #

    Thank you Tamara for your post

    Do you know which of the Le Creuset enamel cast iron are cadmium and lead free?

    Does LC black enamel cast iron contain lead and cadmium? Both on the inside and outside?

    Thanks

    • Tamara July 3, 2018 at 6:43 am #

      I personally avoid Le Creuset altogether, as different batches/years/colors have had varying test results. If you are talking about brand new product the sand colors (beige) seem to test negative the most frequently – although I have only tested a few of them. I do not recall testing any black ones from Le Creuset, sorry. I may have, but I don’t photograph and archive everything I test.

  5. Chris November 17, 2018 at 8:27 am #

    Hi Tamara. I suffer from lead poisoning but I am also allergic to nickel. I was thinking about using cast iron cooking ware instead of stainless steel. Do you think it is safe to buy any new cast iron stove pot without enamel coating as far as you know? I want to be sure of that before ordering as they are pretty expensive here in Europe. I really appreciate your efforts and dedication for raising awareness on lead poisoning. Thank you.

    • Tamara November 17, 2018 at 10:10 am #

      I think they are a good choice. Ikea stainless if often low-nickel or no-nickel, so that’s another option to explore. Where a normal stainless steel pan has 82,000 ppm nickel and Ikea pan might have zero to 2,000 ppm Nickel (in my experience based on the testing I have done.) I use primarily clear glass, cast iron (uncoated) and stainless in my home. I haven’t done enough testing of the pre-seasoned stainless steel pots and I do have some concern (just speculative concern) about what is in the “factory pre-seasoning” on some of the cast iron sold these days – so I think I would buy high quality unseasoned if I were to buy new cast iron, and handle the seasoning part myself. Thank you for reading, Chris! Hopefully I will make it to England soon to do some outreach events. I just need to find a sponsoring agency or business to cover my costs to get over there! – Tamara

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