Avoiding lead in kitchenware
January 11, 2018 3:45 PM   Subscribe

How do you avoid lead in kitchenware? Also if you have tips for not overthinking stuff like this, please share them.

I jokingly say I must've been poisoned in a past life because articles like this one stick in my memory. And apparently we're supposed to worry about cadmium too? (Googling about lead in dishes gives a lot of articles about "lead and cadmium.")

(A) The internet seems kind of vague about how to make sure your dishes and cookware are safe. I found posts about Le Crueset, which is one we actually have. Should I be investing hundreds in new cookware, hundreds in lead tests, or can I... not?

(B) And we need to buy some new dishes. Tips on finding ones without this issue?

(C) We were lucky enough to receive an Instant Pot as a gift for the holidays. I really want one! Then I ran across this, in which they test an Instant Pot and find lead in that heavy heating disk underneath the bowl that food is cooked in. Part of me thinks, be practical, that won't touch your food, and the other part of me thinks about various ways that could still get into food or my toddler's mouth. I wonder if I won't always be kinda thinking about it. It just seems like a bad idea to have in one's kitchen -- or am I making too much of that?

(D) I'd sure love to be one of those people who doesn't worry about invisible, hard-to-research issues like this! If you have tips about becoming one, I'm all ears. While I'd like to dismiss it as overthinking, with a young kid and an issue that's cumulative where less is always better, I'm not 100 percent sure it is?
posted by slidell to Health & Fitness (15 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
My understanding with Le Crueset enameled cast iron is that the interior consistently tests as very safe in terms of leaching.

For dishware, given that it's the glazes that are the culprits, I'd only buy reputable brands and only buy new. If you want to really avoid the issue of glaze altogether, you can go for Corningware's Corelle line, which is glass and not glazed. It also rarely if ever breaks. My parents still have the unchipped set they had when I was growing up (40+years).

I wouldn't spend any time worrying about the Instant Pot heating element. Presence of lead isn't enough to cause a problem, it's leaching into food/water that's also needed for it to be harmful.

I'd be far more careful about painted toys & trinkets than reasonable quality cookware.
posted by quince at 4:18 PM on January 11 [3 favorites]

I have stuff going in my instant pot right now. That heating disk doesn't, can't, will not, touch food you're gonna eat. (However! An apparently very common user error is to dump stuff into the works without the cooking pot in place. This results in a nasty mess, but not contaminated food. Caveat dumper!)

I only have Corelle dishes. Not because lead ever crossed my mind but because they are beautiful, neutral, light, safe and unchippable. They're glass. A+ would recommend if you want something with no glaze, and even if you don't care about glaze. They're great.

Why not just buy glass or stainless steel everything if you're really worried? But no, your cookware isn't going to be where your lead worries need to reside. (Dinky jewelry, though... ugh.)

(Get an instant pot, it's awesome.)
posted by fingersandtoes at 4:29 PM on January 11 [2 favorites]

For (C) yes you are making way too much of this. For this and your (D): if you think like this a lot, consider the possibility that there may be some OCD or borderline-OCD thinking going on, and address that.

For how to get lead-free dishes and other kitchenware (at least in the US): as quince says, buy new, and reputable brands. That'll do it.
posted by 2 cats in the yard at 4:59 PM on January 11 [8 favorites]

Fiesta Ware dishes are also lead-free (if you buy ones made after 1986).
posted by belladonna at 5:39 PM on January 11 [3 favorites]

I used to sell exotic cookware (tajines that were made in Morocco etc) and came up against this sort of enquiry all the time. And, given that the products were handmade in a traditional style from countries not especially known for their health and safety policies, it was a fair question.

Firstly, to answer your actual question, steer clear of anything with a brightly coloured interior - particularly pottery or ceramic - glazes like red, greed or yellow have been traditionally made with a variety oxides, some containing lead. Ensure that whatever you're using is made specifically for whatever you're using it for. This seems like a no-brainer, but I used to sell decorative plates that were fine as a piece of art on the wall, but which were marked "not for use with food" and this was something I was at pains to explain to people. So don't use a bright wall plaque as an hipster cheese platter and so on. (#wewantplates are onto a good thing, to be honest). Lead can sit there and look at you from a decorative wall plaque or a heating disk, but unless you are actively trying to eat it, it's not going to hurt you.

And further, most of the stuff on the market today is not made with toxic materials! Reputable main-stream brands will have done toxicity testing on their products - if you're worried, then request the information - ask for a materials safety data sheet.

Secondly, if there is lead present (and there sometimes is) it is often in such ridiculously tiny quantities that it really can't harm you. For example, I had one of the tajines returned by a customer who was worried that the glaze contained lead. He had bought a home testing lead kit and it had come up positive for lead contamination. I brought the tajine to a laboratory that conducted extensive (and destructive) testing to verify what was in the pottery and glaze, and how much. The test results came back positive for lead, yes, but in such infinitesimal quantities that the gentleman who conducted the testing explained that I would likely receive more of a dose whilst vacuuming an old house than I would by ingesting a meal cooked in the tajine. A lifetime of eating meals in that tajine wouldn't even start to poison you - cumulative as lead might be.

My customer was very reassured, I had to replace his destroyed tajine at my own cost, and I eventually got out of the business not because I thought I was killing people with dodgy cookware, but because I simply couldn't reassure people enough that their fears were largely groundless.

I can present all the data in the world to you, but if you're worried about something to this extent, I don't think that the reassurance of some nice people on The Internet is going to help you. As other posters have noted, perhaps your best bet about the "overthinking" as you call it, is to seek therapy. You will get an expert's assessment about how much worry is too much, and you might learn some useful ways of combating the more egregious examples.

Sorry for the wall of text, but I hope this helps.
posted by ninazer0 at 5:51 PM on January 11 [21 favorites]

If it's any consolation, as a kid, I used to make lead sinkers by melting lead pellets in a teaspoon over a burner, and then after they were cool, I would chew them. Could I be smarter? Sure. Do I think chewing lead sinkers has dumbed me down? Not as much as commercial media, so pick your poison to worry about.
posted by Thella at 6:08 PM on January 11 [11 favorites]

As the owner of an Instant Pot and a toddler, I can confirm that it's pretty...out there...to worry about the heating element. It never touches the food. And your kid would have to be a pretty talented contortionist to get their mouth on the heating plate. (And even if they did, I'm not convinced that would be enough to cause serious damage...)
posted by cpatterson at 6:28 PM on January 11 [3 favorites]

Use the Instant Pot. Maybe have a chat about this with your GP, OB, or Pediatrician, because Postpartum Anxiety is a thing and you are kiiinda tiptoeing into "unreasonable fears" territory.

I mean yes, maybe avoid using unpackaged tableware from flea markets, and certainly I can back up the recommendation for Corelle as a nice clean tough attractive safe product if you're using hand-fired glazed pottery from the 60s or something else really suspicious, but as long as your child doesn't have unsupervised access to an auto repair shop your primary real lead risks are old paint on surfaces or old toys, dirt on industrial property, or your city water. And you will likely already know if your city has water quality issues (it's easily looked up if you do).

If your cookware is seriously a real actual risk, like all of it is pre 1940s dark-metal-surface or painted, you can buy a nice Tramontina or similar not-prestige-brand-name stainless-clad set for around $100 at BBB, sometimes Costco, Walmart/Sams, and online.
posted by Lyn Never at 6:57 PM on January 11 [6 favorites]

As far as neuroses go, this is at least based in reality and reasonably within your ability to deal with. If an issue isn't real or you couldn't really do anything about it anyway it's better not to worry so much.
posted by Small Dollar at 10:19 PM on January 11

You can get testing swabs if you want to check 1 piece of old crockery. Lead is bad for you and really bad for kids, so it's good to keep it out of the waste stream. When the Instant Pot needs to be disposed of, the lead in it is a bit of an issue. You could contact the company and ask.

Limit your exposure to morning shows on tv, Dr. Oz, and websites that are all about panicking over everything. Lead is a real issue, but it's less scary now because there's no more lead in gasoline, in dishes, in paint, etc. Your child is very unlikely to be abducted by aliens, but measles is a thing, and preventable, so vaccinate. Probably the biggest danger is car travel, so spend the time you might have spent getting spooked by whatever new article about the dangers of gluten, and learn more about how to drive better and more safely. Hint: avoid left turns, lights on for visibility, really don't text and drive.

There's no shortage of scary stuff, and it all gets lots of play on tv, but cars and driving are safer than ever, lots of childhood diseases are preventable and/or far more treatable than they used to be, etc. I'm 60, and nobody knew that lead was a problem when I was growing up, polio vaccine was brand new and people were thankful for it, smoke alarms didn't exist in homes, cars were unsafe and didn't have seat belts, to say nothing of air bags. One way to cope with all the noise about safety is to notice and be thankful for the many ways in which we are much safer.
posted by theora55 at 10:23 PM on January 11

I don't have a cite on this, but my understanding is that lead poisoning is mostly a problem in people which have nutritional deficiencies (low calcium) which causes the body to uptake lead more readily. Anecdotally, I have been handling (with ZERO precautions) lead based solder in both hobby and occupational settings for 25+ years. Our soil has lead levels in the "don't grow vegetables here" range. Our water main pipe - lead. Tests of both my lead levels and my son's have been quite low. My point is simply that if our levels check OK in a near worst case scenario, your concerns are probably unfounded. Perhaps getting yourself and or your child tested would prove reassuring and allow you to relax?
posted by Larry David Syndrome at 6:57 AM on January 12

I have literally never considered this as a problem, and now that you've raised it, I've discounted it as being a problem given the lack of literature claiming it is a problem. So, I guess that's how I avoid overthinking it.
posted by craven_morhead at 9:18 AM on January 12

I used to make lead sinkers by melting lead pellets in a teaspoon over a burner, and then after they were cool, I would chew them.

When I was six my dad gave m a lead casting set, with which I fashioned soldiers that also wound up in my and my brothers' mouths, usually while watching TV. Two of them earned PhDs and we're all pretty successful; now we're in our 60s.

Also never knew there was any lead in cookware worth worrying about -- I thought the elemental concern there was aluminum (possibly causing Alzheimer's, which I believe has been debunked).
posted by Rash at 9:41 AM on January 12

Ok, glad to hear that it sounds like I'm overthinking this. I really want to use this Instant Pot. I appreciate you all's help in sorting out what is worth worrying about (old toys) from what isn't.

What I still can't quite grasp, I guess, is how this seemingly minor thing differs from all the other seemingly minor things that people agree do matter. Like, the venetian blinds thing that happened and is now one of the 25 things on a lead-safe home checklist (example). I would've thought that there was no way that they would release lead dust into the environment at levels that matter. Given that pieces of plastic that don't touch food in one's living room do matter, why don't pieces of metal that touch a bowl that you put in your sink and wash with your sponge matter? I guess maybe there are different concentrations or plastic degrades more or something?

It's interesting that so many people don't even think this is a Thing. Articles like this NPR story randomly pop up in my media. Then I do some reading and end up with examples like this recent Pottery Barn bowl. (That said, I also found a lot of stuff saying that almost all dishes are safe.) On a less reliable note but to give you an idea where this comes from, my Instant Pot interest was preceded by reading a bunch about slow cookers, and one of the slow cookers I was looking at had this review as one of the "most useful" reviews. That review sounds a little over the top, but I did mentally bookmark the issue as something to look into, and then once I started, I ended up stuck when info was ambiguous or hard to find.

Anyway, that's how I ended up heading down this path. Luckily this kind of thing only comes up maybe once every 3-6 months (like when we had to use insecticides while I was pregnant), and I can usually find an answer eventually, but I'm sure it'd help to get some tips from a therapist once I have a bit of time and money to spare. Anyway, thanks again.
posted by slidell at 4:18 PM on January 12 [1 favorite]

Crock-pots of the type referenced in that review are glazed ceramic cooking vessels, so the type of glaze could theoretically be an issue there, but it has nothing to do with an Instant Pot insert which is stainless steel.

The venetian blind story is because kids can and will and do fidget with small hanging things that they can reach; and especially as toddlers they will put things in their mouth too. Venetian blinds and their cords are physically accessible to small children. Pressure cooker heating elements are not.
posted by fingersandtoes at 4:31 PM on January 12 [2 favorites]

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