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Dangers of Lead Still Linger

by Dixie Farley

Occupational Hazards

Clark Carrington, Ph.D., of FDA's dairy foods and beverages contaminants branch, names workplace exposure as the next major potential source of lead. Besides their own exposures, workers may bring lead dust home on clothes, hands or hair, exposing children in the household.

Occupations that may expose workers to lead include painting, smelters, firearms instruction, automotive repair, brass or copper foundries, and bridge, tunnel and elevated highway construction.

To help protect workers from such exposure, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration calls for removal of workers from the workplace if their blood lead levels reach 50 mcg/dL. EPA limits lead emissions from certain industries.

Keeping Drinking Water Safe

Certain drinking water systems can also pose a lead risk. Under EPA rules, if lead exceeds 15 parts per billion (ppb) in more than 10 percent of public water taps sampled, the system must undergo a series of corrosion control treatments. The main culprits are corroded lead plumbing, lead solder on copper plumbing, and brass faucets. Lead is highest in water left in pipes for a long time--for example, when the faucet isn't used overnight.

FDA's quality standard for bottled water requires that lead not be present at 5 ppb, the lowest concentration that generally available methods for water analysis can reliably measure. If bottled water contains lead above this level, it is subject to regulatory action, including removal from the marketplace.

Lead in Ceramicware

Some ceramicware has lead in the glaze and may introduce small amounts of lead in the diet, which the body can tolerate, says Carrington. "The major problem with ceramicware is the rare poorly made piece with very high levels of leaching lead." Bolger adds that even with these pieces, risk varies. "A plate coming in brief contact with food is not an issue," he says, "but storage of food in such a bowl or pitcher is a risk." It's especially wise to avoid storing acidic foods like juice and vinegar in ceramicware, as acids promote lead leaching.

FDA has established maximum levels for leachable lead in ceramicware, and pieces that exceed these levels are subject to recall or other agency enforcement action. The levels are based on how frequently a piece of ceramicware is used, the type and temperature of the food it holds, and how long the food stays in contact with the piece. For example, cups, mugs and pitchers have the most stringent action level, 0.5 parts per million, because they can be expected to hold food longer, allowing more time for lead to leach. Also, a pitcher may be used to hold fruit juice. And a coffee mug is generally used every day to hold a hot acidic beverage, often several times a day.

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