How much lead can a person take?
February 14, 2008 3:52 AM   Subscribe

What's the chance that there's lead in my newly purchased Chinese-manufactured mugs? And, should I be worried?

So, the other day I purchased some nice and inexpensive mugs from Target. But, now I'm slightly concerned about the level of lead in these mugs. I know from my recreational pottery classes that lead is often used in glazes to help with controlling the melting. And, with all of the recent news about lead in Chinese-manufactured toys, I'm now wondering about the lead content in these mugs.

First, what's the chance that these mugs actually have lead in the glaze. And, if there is lead, how much would I be ingesting along with my hot beverage? And, finally, how harmful is lead relative to other dangers that the average US consumer exposes themselves to daily?
posted by brandnew to Health & Fitness (16 answers total)
i imagine that this hysteria has been around long enough for target to doublecheck its stock. but i believe there are home testing kits you can buy if you are concerned.
posted by thinkingwoman at 4:22 AM on February 14, 2008

Why would the mugs be more likely to contain lead because they come from China? Here's some news that may alarm you: lead is all around you! There is lead in some good old American made pottery! There is lead in some Vitnamese manufactured paints! There is lead in some Mexican jewelry! There is lead in some *fill in nationality here* *fill in product here*. There is even lead in the soil you track around your home and office!!1!

Here is the news that you may find calming: lead is all around you and because lead is all around you your body, when not innundated with too much extra lead, does a pretty good job at filtering it out and making sure you aren't poinsoned by it. Now sure, if you are a paint chip eater, you like to breathe solder fumes or you are a DC resident you are getting lots of extra and this can overwelm your body. Children, who tend to stick things in their mouths and who can't filter as much have troubles, particularly when the tasty tasty paint is doused on their toys.

I don't mean to sound condecending with my answer. As a DC resident and DC water and sewer authority customer in the NE side of town (you know the side of town where the rich white folks that like to sue for things like being provided with poisoned water by a public utility company live) lead is more than just a trivial matter to my family. If you really are concerned about the mugs get a lead test kit. Test your tap water for a control, then leave some boiling hot water in the mugs overnight and have that tested. I would doubt that the mugs, even if lead glazed impart more than the 15 PPM minimum standard set by the EPA. (My tap water tested at @200 PPM with the chemicals that DCWASA added to "solve" the DC lead problem, and now they've decided to lift the program of lead pipe removal now that they've finished the most litigation risky areas of the city, joy!)
posted by Pollomacho at 5:44 AM on February 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

Hardware stores have lead detection kits, intended for lead paint & plumbing.
posted by aramaic at 5:49 AM on February 14, 2008

Why would the mugs be more likely to contain lead because they come from China?

Because Chinese manufacturers have already been caught using lead just to cut costs.
posted by smackfu at 6:11 AM on February 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

Because Chinese manufacturers have already been caught using lead just to cut costs.

Yes, so have manufacturers in other nations as well. The Chinese are a hot topic. I searched the Consumer Product Safety Commision's website and found no mention of any mugs being recalled for lead content. Toys, yes. Chinese toys, definitely. Exclusively Chinese toys, no.
posted by Pollomacho at 6:44 AM on February 14, 2008

Oh man, I've got some bad news for you:

1. Home lead testing kits declared ineffective by the CPSC.
2. 30% of tested dinner plates positive for lead.
3. There was a story recently about 70% of retailers not testing their own merchandise, instead saying that they're relying on their suppliers to do their own testing. Can't find a link though.
posted by unixrat at 7:15 AM on February 14, 2008

Certain glazes have more lead content than others. It is the low fire glazes that have the lead you have to worry about, the glazes in bright colors like red. Manufacturers aren't supposed to be using that on dishes that will contain food or drink and the ones that do are usually marked "not suitable for food" or something along those lines. I personally would not buy any dishware made in China, however. That is my own personal distrust of what I already know about the import/export ethics of other product lines.
posted by 45moore45 at 7:16 AM on February 14, 2008

I have often thought about importing ceramics from Italy as a business, but always get hung-up on how to test the merchandise for lead content. I would hope that a distributer as big as Target would have tested for lead - the liability would be enormous. It's a little different than lead content in toys, because people understand that you are going to eat or drink from a ceramic object. I think that any retailer would be worried about that, and not because they are from China, but because the merchandise comes in contact with food.
posted by thomas144 at 7:42 AM on February 14, 2008

Ok, I am going to interject because I have academic degrees in both ceramics and Chinese History (Modern). I am going to tell you right now that lead has not been a significant part of Chinese ceramic technology since the T'ang Dynasty when they were making those pretty try color horse statues, which I would assume you are not drinking out of since one of those would cost more then your house. I am also going to point out that the Chinese pottery tradition is the most advanced (Japan might argue, and I would be inclined to listen) in the world, and they basically got over lead 1600 years ago as they could do more interesting things with other materials. Thirdly, those brilliant reds you might see (they wont be on some stupid mug at Target) are called "ox-bloods" and they are basically carbon trapping copper rich glazes that have NOTHING to do with lead. Furthermore Chinese pottery is almost exclusively very high fire, and there is usually a clear glaze above any coloring agents, with the exception of Tao Zi (I dont know the English term for that), but you wont find that in Target, ever.

You are fine.
posted by BobbyDigital at 8:28 AM on February 14, 2008

You're probably OK, according to the Internet:

Because of its heightened focus on ceramic ware, in February 1992, FDA inspectors in every port in the country conducted a short-term intense surveillance of ceramic products used for food, ranging from fine bone china to inexpensive imported pottery. Assisted in many cases by state authorities, FDA inspectors examined more than 5,000 lots of ceramic ware from 29 countries. Nearly 700 lots of domestic ceramic ware from approximately 90 firms were also examined. The results were encouraging. Using the best screening methods available, FDA examiners found that only about 1 percent of imported and 3 percent of domestic ceramic ware exceeded the action levels. (See "New Initiatives for Import Safety," FDA Consumer, October 1992.)
posted by Comrade_robot at 8:31 AM on February 14, 2008

Umm...we're not talking about traditional Chinese ceramics, though, BobbyDigital. My mother has an academic degree in ceramics and Asian art history, has owned her own pottery supply business and specifically seeks out traditional Chinese and Japanese ceramics at thrift stores and garage sales—and even she would be wary of buying brightly colored–glazed ceramics made in China at a store like Target. I suspect that many of the factories in China cranking out consumer products for the American market are in fact owned wholly by or are subsidiaries of American and other foreign companies, who have no interest in using/preserving traditional methods of ceramic creation—they're simply interested in making a buck with cheap, mass-produced ceramic products. And as we've been reminded of recently, such products mass-produced in China for American and foreign consumers bear the risk of having passed lax safety standards and quality controls.

(This is nothing new, BTW. Google "red Fiestaware lead". As I understand it, my great-grandmother suffered lead poisoning, in fact, after eating off of red Fiestaware on a regular basis while living in Guadalajara for a time.)

Your academic credentials and expertise, while certainly an interesting addition to the discussion, have little bearing on the dangers inherent in buying mass-produced ceramics originating in Chinese factories. No one here is trying to deride the abilities, intelligence or historical grounding of traditional Chinese artisans and ceramicists—rather, the OP is simply trying to get an idea of how likely it is that they will get lead poisoning from ceramics purchased at Target.

brandnew, try this story on for size. (Unfortunately, the story doesn't include information on where the reporters purchased the dishes tested—but it does confirm that this stuff's out there.)

As for the effects of lead poisoning...check out this list. It's a pretty big deal.
posted by limeonaire at 10:29 AM on February 14, 2008

Also, look, BobbyDigital: bright red Target mug set.
posted by limeonaire at 10:35 AM on February 14, 2008

Somehow I doubt that modern ceramic mugs sold at a major chain like target will have significant amounts of lead in them. I highly doubt that modern dinnerware glazes used on a large scale have significant amounts of lead in them. Yes, in the past, glazes had lead. That's not an issue here.

Your mugs are fine. They aren't painted with lead paint like all the scary killer lead toys were.

Your house, though, might very well be painted with lead paint. I'd worry far, far more about the paint on your windowsills and trim than I would about your new mugs from target.
posted by gyusan at 11:06 AM on February 14, 2008

Keep in mind there is zero risk from windowsills and trim unless you like to chew on them. Kids! What won't they do?
posted by smackfu at 12:12 PM on February 14, 2008

Not true, smackfu—if the paint is disturbed, lead dust may be stirred up. Flakes that chip off or fall off on their own may be ground into powder underfoot. Subsequently, people who may inadvertently end up breathing lead paint dust.

The risks from those can be largely mitigated by painting over the paint in question, keeping documentation in case the home is ever sold (so future owners will know of the potential risk of renovations, and use appropriate methods if they later wish to remove the paint) and keeping an eye out for chipped or peeling paint in any of these locations. But it's incorrect to say there's zero risk from paint on windowsills and trim—these are in fact often the most likely parts of a lead-painted wall to be bumped, scraped or exposed to changes in temperature that facilitate cracking and peeling.
posted by limeonaire at 12:10 PM on February 15, 2008

er, people who may
posted by limeonaire at 12:10 PM on February 15, 2008

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