Lead In Pottery

I’ve always liked ceramics and earthenware. The color pottery sold in ethnic markets or overseas has a special appeal to me. There are even special recipes that are supposed to be cooked using earthenware such as cazuela de mariscos (seafood casserole) among others.

While some of these pottery and dishes might decorate many a kitchen across America, there is a risk that these ceramics may contain a dangerous element—lead. Yes, lead is a heavy metal that has harmful health effects, especially among babies and young children. Lead can cause serious damage to the brain and nervous system in young children. It also causes behavioral and learning problems and deafness. In adults, it can cause reproductive disorders and hypertension among other health problems. Although dust and paint chips from old lead based paint are the primary source of exposure, this toxic metal can come from other sources as well. Lead is occasionally used in the terra cotta clay or colorful glaze that decorates earthenware. If it is not baked properly, it can leach into the food or liquids contained in the pottery. Furthermore, with the daily wear and tear, the pottery can chip or crack enabling the lead to come in contact with the food. Many pottery makers, even overseas, are taking increasing measures to eliminate lead from ceramic glazes, but there are always risks.

So, we’re not telling you to dispose of all family heirlooms made of pottery or all the earthenware and ceramics purchased from abroad. We recommend, however, that you put these ceramics aside if you believe they might have some lead content. Use them for decorative purposes. Just don’t use them for cooking or holding food or beverages.

If you live in a home built before 1978 when the federal government banned lead-based paint in residential housing or you fear other routes of exposure, you can have blood test to allay your fears. Lead poisoning in children is preventable. A simple blood test is the first step.

About the author: Lina Younes has been working for EPA since 2002 and chairs EPA’s Multilingual Communications Task Force. Prior to joining EPA, she was the Washington bureau chief for two Puerto Rican newspapers and she has worked for several government agencies.