For those new to this website:
Tamara Rubin is a multiple-federal-award-winning independent advocate for childhood Lead poisoning prevention and consumer goods safety and a documentary filmmaker. She is also a mother of Lead-poisoned children (two of her sons were acutely Lead-poisoned in 2005). Since 2009, Tamara has been using XRF technology (a scientific method used by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission) to test consumer goods for toxicants (specifically heavy metals — including Lead, Cadmium, Mercury, Antimony, and Arsenic). Tamara’s work was featured in Consumer Reports Magazine in February of 2023 (March 2023 print edition).
“Why is it a problem that some dishes have Lead on the OUTSIDE?”
I get some variation of this question nearly every single day:
- “I don’t understand — what’s the problem? The Lead is only on the outside.”
- “Why does it matter, if the Lead does not touch the food inside the dish?”
- “Does the Lead somehow seep through to the inside of the dish?!”
Here are some answers:
I have answered these questions separately in many comments on my website (and also addressed them within the text of several articles here on the site), but I decided to dedicate an additional article just to this group of questions (and the answers) — so it will be easy for folks to share with their friends and communities.
And so, here are the reasons why it is a problem even though “the Lead is only on the outside” of the dish:
- Scientists have studied this, concluded it is concerning, and confirmed that having Lead-painted decorative elements on the outside of decorated glassware presents potential health risks (link here).
- The Lead-painted coating on these vintage glassware items (and even on some newer examples!) wears off over time, with use and age (see images below of pieces with varying degrees of wear on the exterior paint).
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- The Lead-painted coating wears off in your dishwasher.
- The Lead-painted coating can wear off (in the form of micro-dust) onto your hands whenever you touch it.
- When that coating is wearing off, where is it going? It is going into your kitchen environment, your food prep environment, and in some cases, directly into your food.
- We know this coating is wearing off because dust wipe samples (samples sent to a Laboratory) have been done showing that unsafe levels of Lead micro-dust shed off of these products under normal conditions. (I will upload a video of a dust wipe sample being done on one of these pieces shortly, so you can see what that looks like!)
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- These items are washed, dried, and often then stacked on a shelf when clean. When they are stacked, the outside of one nestles against the inside of the one below it; the user does not normally re-wash an item when they take it out of the cabinet for use, so there is a significant potential for Lead dust from the outside of one item to wear into the inside of another and then have that item be used immediately for food use purposes (without being washed before use, because it is assumed to be clean).
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- When you stack them in this way, they can often stick (and are a bit tricky to pull apart), further exacerbating the potential damage to the coating.
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This image (below) is another example of how Lead painted coatings on these items wear. The bowl in this picture has been placed right under a light so you can see the color variations across one bowl (a bowl that was originally all the same color with the same depth of paint coverage).
Please note the shading variations and the visible nicks in the paint. Where the orange is darker, the Lead level is much higher (when tested with an XRF instrument). Where the orange is lighter — and appears to be glowing on the lower half of the bowl — more paint has worn off and so more light shows through. In those worn areas the XRF readings are normally lower than where the color is darker and thicker and more consistent (like closer to the top lip of the bowl). In this way, we could actually quantify (to some degree, if we wanted to) how much Lead actually has worn off of each piece (if we could measure the total weight of the paint only for these pieces when they were new, and thereby determine how much is missing on any given piece).
- If you hold these items up to the light — with the light shining down into the middle of the item (like in the image above) — you can clearly see the wear pattern on the dish (and sometimes even large portions of the coating are completely missing; the worn coating is the Lead particulates that have worn off into your environment over the years/decades.
- While it sometimes happens, it is not often easy to identify if a single exposure source of micro-particulate Lead (this is literally invisible Lead) — like a particular dish — was the likely source of chronic or acute incidental Lead-poisoning* (or may have contributed to a particular individual’s Elevated Blood Lead Level). The concern here is not for a potential acute Lead exposure but for any particular dish (or household item) contributing to the combined impact from all sources of exposure to micro-particulate Lead (Lead that can slowly build up in your body and cause damage to your bones, teeth, tissue, and organs — including your brain — over time).
- Science and regulatory agencies are all in full agreement that there is no safe level of Lead exposure — that even trace levels of Lead exposure (previously thought to be harmless) are now recognized as potentially quite harmful to humans.
- Replacement modern Lead-free glass storage and cookware options are inexpensive and easy to find, so it seems like a no-brainer to remove the Lead from your home if you can.
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This is just one Lead-free option, from a brand I have tested:
- On a more philosophical level, I invite you to reconsider the sentimental value you have imbued in these mass-manufactured toxic products that so many people have in their homes.
- Please read this article (about how little Lead it takes to poison a human) to give you a deeper understanding of this problem.
Fundamentally, Lead does not belong in our kitchens or on our dining tables. If we do just one quick and easy thing to get Lead out of our lives, I would recommend starting with getting any and all Lead out of the kitchen. It just takes a microscopic amount of Lead to poison a human, and there are a plethora of inexpensive Lead-free options out there, so defending the use of Lead in any of our kitchens seems ridiculous to me (the mother of children with permanent brain damage from being Lead-poisoned as babies). If you can avoid Lead, why wouldn’t you?
Additionally, folks question why this isn’t a problem from a regulatory perspective. They often argue that “these items MUST be safe — because they were allowed to be mass-manufactured by a large, well-known, reputable company.” My answer to that is as follows:
- In most cases, there literally were no regulatory standards at the time these items were manufactured.
- During the period after which regulatory standards were put in place, these standards only governed the insides of dishes (not thinking ahead to the potential impacts of the toxic coatings of the exteriors of dishes and other functional cookware).
- The only current regulatory standard is STILL just regulating the presence of toxicants on the inside of dishware — so the exterior can still be hazardous!
- The leach-testing standards currently in effect today do not take into account the actual practical lifespan of many of these products (normally many decades) and they only evaluate whether or not a dish or pot or pan is actively leaching toxic heavy metals from the inside AND only if it is leaching heavy metals at the time of manufacture. It is obvious when looking at products like these that are one or more decades old, that merely meeting leach-testing standards at the time of manufacture is not relevant to the potential for these items to poison the user when the items are no longer new.
As always, thank you for reading and sharing this work. Please let me know if you have any questions.
*I have — in fact — worked with several families of Lead-poisoned children for whom a single dish with a high-Lead paint or coating (used on a regular basis) was identified as the likely source of a child’s poisoning. Here are two stories that with examples of that. Story 1. Story 2.
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