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13 Investigates: Lead in Your Dishes

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Inspectors at the Marion County Health Dept use an XRF to test dishes for high lead.

Bob Segall/13 Investigates

Lead is considered toxic and it's a key ingredient in millions of dinner plates, cereal bowls and other dishes we use every day. Federal regulators say, in most dishes, the lead poses no health risk, but some local health officials say the high amount of lead found in many dishes is "too risky" and shouldn't be permitted. When it comes to lead in your dishes, how much is too much – and how can you tell whether your plates contain dangerous levels of lead?

Indianapolis - In one hand, Daniel Fries holds a colorful fruit bowl. In the other, a $30,000 XRF analyzer that will tell him how much lead is inside the dish.

He gently presses the analyzer against the bowl, pulls the trigger and, a few seconds later, the test is complete.

"Wow, that's a lot," said Fries, an environmental health specialist at the Marion County Health Department. "The inside of the bowl came back at ten percent lead. It's a shock to think there's that much lead in this, and it's something I wouldn't use anymore if it was mine."

Linda Hullett did stop using her favorite dinner plates after testing showed both the dishes and her daughter had high levels of lead.

"How can you get lead poisoning? Never crossed my mind it was dishes," Hullett said. "It's something you never think about."

Hullett's daughter, Paige, was having trouble concentrating in school. Upon the recommendation of a doctor, Paige was tested for heavy metals, and results showed the teenager had elevated levels of lead. The family then searched their home for a cause.

"We had our water tested and that was OK, and we have a newer home so we knew the paint wasn't a problem," Hullett said. "Then someone suggested we test our plates."

That's when the Hulletts went to the Marion County Health Department and learned their dinner plates contained 27,600 parts per million of lead, prompting both concern and confusion.

Why it's in there

Small amounts of lead are found naturally in the environment, but because lead is a toxic substance that builds up in the body, health experts recommend avoiding it whenever possible.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency says exposure to lead can result in learning disabilities; attention deficit disorder; decreased intelligence; speech, language and behavior problems; poor muscle coordination; constipation; sleeping disorders; high blood pressure; muscle and joint pain; birth defects; and damage to the nervous system and kidneys. Government regulators say exposure to even low levels of lead can have a lifelong impact on a young child.

Despite the health risks associated with lead, the dinnerware industry has long used it as a key ingredient in the paint and glaze added to many ceramic dishes.

"It makes it durable, it makes it hard, and it's the best material there is for that purpose," explained Sandy Spence, spokeswoman for the Society of Glass and Ceramic Decorated Products (SGCDPro).

Most products that contain lead are regulated by the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission. Prompted by massive recalls involving lead-tainted toys imported from China, the CPSC recently began enforcing a more stringent lead standard. Toys and other children's products are allowed to contain up to 300 parts per million of lead; items containing more lead are illegal for sale in the United States.

The XRF, which analyzes a product's total lead content by using x-rays that penetrate the surface, is commonly used by government agencies to conduct lead tests on toys and ceramic dinnerware. 13 Investigates obtained an Innov-X Systems XRF analyzer (and training on how to use it) and then tested hundreds of dishes.

Test results top 100,000

The testing included new dishes purchased from popular local retailers, as well as older dishes borrowed from the cupboards of WTHR staff members. Of the 315 plates, bowls and mugs analyzed, 113 (36%) exceeded the CPSC lead limit of 300 ppm used as a benchmark for children's products. One out of ten dishes contained more than 10,000 ppm of lead, and several of them topped 100,000 ppm.

"I wouldn't use a plate or a bowl that had that much lead in it," said Karla Johnson, director of the Marion County Health Department's Lead Safe and Healthy Homes Program. "I just wouldn't. There's no need."

WTHR found no common characteristic among the plates that yielded high lead content. Some featured bright colors and bold patters while others were plain white. Some of the plates came from China, England and Germany and others were produced in Italy, Japan and the United States. Some of the dishes were brand new and some are antiques.

"That's the dilemma for many families because you don't know by looking at it if it's got a lot of lead. It's just a guessing game, and that's unfortunate," Johnson said.

"Just not dangerous"

Despite high levels of lead found by WTHR and the Marion County Health Department, Spence says there's no reason for consumers to worry. She believes the lead in most plates is harmless.

"It's just not dangerous," Spence said. "What matters is not whether there's lead in it, but whether the lead comes out in a manner that it gets into your food so it gets into your body."

The federal government agrees with her.

Unlike toys and most other consumer products, dishes are regulated by the United States Food and Drug Administration. The FDA doesn't care how much lead is in a plate; it wants to know how much lead leaches out – something an XRF cannot detect. For that, there is a special leach test that can only be done in a laboratory. 13 Investigates hired two labs to conduct leach testing on 18 separate dishes that contain high levels of lead.

On several of the dishes, lead did leach during the test. A bowl leached 15 ppm of lead, which is far above the FDA's safe allowable leaching limit of 2 ppm. Another bowl exceeded California's much tougher lead limit of .100 ppm. (California and Massachusetts currently have stricter lead limits for ceramic tableware than the federal limits that apply to Indiana and other states.)

Testing also showed a plate featuring a popular cartoon character leached cadmium, a toxic substance linked to several forms of cancer.

But most of the plates sent to a lab for leach testing by Eyewitness News – including all of the plates recently purchased from local retailers – leached only tiny amounts of lead, well below the FDA standard. The cadmium detected by WTHR was within FDA limits too.

"It's fairly rare that we find anything high [during the leaching test] anymore," said Dick Goldblatt, director of Chicago Spectro Service Laboratory, which tests ceramic tableware for dish manufacturers, retailers and importers. "I think they recognized the problem years ago, and over the years it's gotten better."

Regulated for 40 years

SGCDPro says its members have taken steps to reduce the amount of lead that can leach out of ceramic dishes since the issue was first identified almost 40 years ago.

"There's been regulations and there's been testing, so if you buy tableware in this country from a reputable retailer, there should be no problem whatsoever," Spence said.

The FDA says it receives far fewer reports of lead poisoning associated with ceramic dishes than it did several decades ago. The agency now monitors dishes imported from China and other countries to ensure they meet the United States lead standard, and the FDA defends that standard, which is different and more lenient than the CPSC's lead standard for toys.

The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act now enforced by the CPSC specifically provides that coatings such as glazing "may not be considered a barrier that would render lead … inaccessible." The FDA believes glazing does provide an adequate barrier to protect the public from lead in dishes and, therefore, its lead limit allows very high levels of lead to be used in the manufacturing process.

"If plates are properly manufactured, that lead is bound within the glaze and will not leach into food, and it's going to be safe," said Mike Kashtok, an FDA consumer safety officer.

"Not going to risk it"

But the Marion County Health Department is not convinced. Johnson says if a plate contains lots of lead, she doesn't care if it's leaching out or not.

"I would not feed my family out of it. I already know lead is harmful to children. It causes permanent damage. I'm just not going to risk it," Johnson explained.

And some consumers are skeptical, too.

Two years ago, doctors in Utah diagnosed Chloe McBride with lead poisoning that was later linked to her family's dinner plates.

Chloe's mother, Jen, sought medical attention because the infant was severely constipated and would go days without a bowel movement.

An environmental health specialist at the Weber-Morgan Health Department tested every room in McBride's home before zeroing in on the dishes, which contained a high level of lead.

"Because we ate off the plates, we were ingesting the lead and then passing it to her through my breast milk," McBride explained.

After Hullett learned her daughter and dishes also had high levels of lead, she told the rest of her family in Indianapolis. Her sisters, Erin and Angie, took their dishes to the Marion County Health Department for XRF testing and discovered their plates contained lots of lead, too.

"We've all got lead in our dinnerware sitting in our cupboards, and we use it every day and raised our babies on it," said Erin Baker, whose dinner plates contain 174,000 ppm of lead. "I'm very frustrated."

"It was unbelievable to me that we were eating off those plates that had such high lead levels," said Angie Kiley. "Those plates may be fine for a couple of years, but then when you're cutting things on them, day in and day out, heating them up in the microwave and it's breaking down that glaze, then what happens?

Even industry insiders admit, that's still a question.

What to watch out for

"If you have something that's old, if you have something that has little crackles in it, if you have something that's chipped, that could be a problem," Spence said. "Also, if you use a steak knife and you cut through the [plate's] surface, there could be something that comes through that little scratch. That's why it's better to use things that are not marked up. Let me put it this way ... if it's chipped, I wouldn't use it. If it's old and you found it in your grandma's attic, I might stay away from it."

The FDA is also unsure about the impact of long-term use on dishes and whether that could compromise safety.

"We have no information that would indicate that glaze on plates, simply because they are old, is going to break down and they're going to be unsafe for use," Kashtok said. "However, we have always advised consumers that if their plates show any sign of deterioration or if they are very old or antique items, to be prudent about what they do with those plates. "

Because the FDA did not begin regulating lead in dishes until the 1970s, plates manufactured before that are much more likely to contain dangerous levels of lead.

WTHR's testing revealed antique dishes regularly used by WTHR assistant news director Jeff Benscoter and his family contained 48,900 ppm of lead and leached seven times more lead than the FDA says is safe.

"My family's been using these for years," Benscoter said. "I'd rather know because I don't want to do anything to hurt my kids."

Danger south of the border

The FDA also warns about traditional folk ceramic dishes that come from other countries. The agency reports terracotta-type pottery from Mexico and hand-made traditional ceramic dishes made in China are among the more popular items that fail FDA testing.

The Marion County Health Department still has a Mexican cooking bowl that's blamed for poisoning a young Indianapolis boy. "You can see where the glaze has worn away," said Johnson, pointing to the inside of the bowl. "The family had a whole set of dishes like that one that also tested high."

Kashtok says it is the manufacturing process – not the country of origin – that ultimately determines whether a dish is safe. "If the piece is not properly made, then there's the potential for lead in the glaze to migrate into the food," he said.

So how do you know if your plates are made correctly? Critics say most consumers don't know, and U.S. Representative Jim Matheson (D-Utah) thinks you should.

Warning labels debated

"As a consumer, I can't tell you if the glaze is right on this plate. I have no idea if the glaze has been fired correctly," Matheson told the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Capitol Hill. "Most people don't realize lead glazing is used on these plates."

Matheson introduced an amendment that is now included in the Food Safety Bill being considered by Congress. It would require plates manufactured with added lead to be labeled "This product is made with lead-based glaze."

Spence believes warning labels are unnecessary.

"There's almost an irrational fear of lead and there are some people who believe you should just eliminate it," she said. "We believe tableware sold in the country is safe, so if we put a label on that says ‘This product has lead in it,' it will scare people unnecessarily."

Hullett says she has a right feel scared. After all, she argues, both her dishes and her daughter tested high for lead – so much lead, the health department recommended she stop using her plates. 

"I'm ticked off – very ticked off – and I think we should be told if there's lead in our dishes," she said.

Testing your dishes

For now, testing your dishes is the only way to determine if they contain high levels of lead and whether that lead may be leaching into your food.

WTHR and the Marion County Health Department are offering a special testing clinic where consumers can get their dishes tested for free. It takes place Friday, May 14, from 10:00 am until 2:00 pm at MCHD headquarters, 3838 N Rural Street in Indianapolis.

Click here for a map and to get directions.

The health department will use an XRF analyzer to show you exactly how much lead is inside your dishes so you can decide if you want to have them tested further.

The FDA recommends buying a home test kit to determine if your plates are leaching lead or cadmium. The kits cost $6 - $50 and are available at many local hardware stores and online. The CPSC does not recommend home test kits because some studies show the kits are not reliable enough to tell the difference between high and low levels of lead.

For more accurate testing, labs such as ESG Laboratories in Indianapolis (317-290-1471) and Chicago Spectro Services Laboratory in Chicago (773-229-0099) offer leaching tests that cost $20 - $30 per dish tested. In some cases, the Marion County Health Department's Lead Safe & Healthy Homes Department (317-221-2155) also conducts leach testing on dishes.

Lead-free dishes available

Several manufacturers now offer dinnerware made without lead and promote "lead-free" while selling their dishes.

The Homer Laughlin China Company boasts its Fiesta dinnerware collection is "Lead Free China for the New Millenium." Denby claims "NO LEAD or cadmium is used during the manufacturing proccess of any Denby product." And Hartstone Pottery tells consumers "all body, glaze and paint raw materials are lead and cadmium free."

"It is a selling point and more and more people are becoming aware of the hazards of lead," said Skip Browning, owner of the Ohio-based Hartstone Pottery. "We feel lead is polluting the earth and polluting people, and we're just not going to have lead and cadmium in our stuff. We have customers tell us they're very happy about that."

Find more information about lead and symptoms of lead poisoning here.