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Dangers of Lead Still Linger

by Dixie Farley

Michael Kashtock, Ph.D., chief of FDA's Office of Plant and Dairy Foods and Beverages enforcement branch, says, "FDA allows use of lead glazes because they're the most durable. But we regulate them tightly to ensure their safety. Commercial manufacturers ... employ extremely strict and effective manufacturing controls that keep the lead from leaching during use." Small potters often can't control the firing of lead glazes as well, he warns, so their ceramics are more likely to leach illegal lead levels, although many do use lead-free glazes. "The best advice is to stick to commercially made products. If you are going to buy something hand-made or hand-painted, get assurance that lead-free glazes were used," he says.

Antique ceramicware may leach high levels of lead. Consumers can use a lead test kit from a hardware store on such pieces and on other hand-painted ceramicware they may already own. Avoid using such items--particularly cups, mugs or pitchers--if the glaze develops a chalky gray residue after washing.

"And you want to make sure," says Rosenthal, "that you know whether an item is for food use, or if it's for decorative use only." FDA requires high-lead-leaching decorative ceramicware to be permanently labeled that it's not for food use and may poison food. Such items bought outside the United States may not be so labeled, potentially posing serious risk if used for food.

Other Lead Sources

Tin-coated lead foil capsules on wine bottles: FDA banned these capsules in 1996 after a study by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms found that 3 to 4 percent of wines examined could become contaminated during pouring from lead residues deposited on the mouth of the bottle by the foil capsule. U.S. winemakers stopped using lead foils before the ban, but older bottles with the foils may still be around. "Remove the entire foil before using such wines," says attorney Martin Stutsman, a consumer safety officer in FDA's dairy foods and beverages enforcement branch. "Then before uncorking the bottle, wipe its neck and rim and the top of the cork with a clean wet cloth."

Lead-soldered food cans: Despite U.S. food canners' voluntary elimination of lead solder and a 1995 FDA ban on lead-soldered cans, requiring their removal from shelves by June 1996, this source of lead in the diet hasn't been fully eliminated. Some countries still use lead-soldered cans for food, and these food items may still occasionally be imported, albeit illegally, into the United States. Also, some small vendors may still stock old inventories of food in lead-soldered cans. In fact, a 1997 FDA investigation found more than 100 such cans in ethnic grocery stores in California alone.

Glassware: Lead crystal glassware may leach lead. "The crystalware industry has established voluntary lead-leaching limits for crystalware," says Kashtock, "that most foreign and domestic manufacturers follow." As a precaution, children and pregnant women should avoid frequent use of crystal glassware. Lead crystal baby bottles should never be used.

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