So what can you do? Most prudent, say Kosnett and others, is to stop eating and drinking off any ceramics you’re uncertain about.
This includes vintage and older ceramics made before 1992, when the FDA instituted its current lead guidelines for food-safe ceramics; imported ceramics or those you bought abroad (where safety standards may be more lax); or ceramics made by hobbyist ceramicists if you’re unsure they comply with safety standards by using lead-free materials, or whether they use quality kilns that run at the high temperatures necessary to properly fuse the materials.
Check the FDA’s Red List of ceramics it has found to have unsafe levels of lead. When shopping for ceramics, don’t buy any for food and drink that have labels that say “not for food use” or “for decorative use only.” Such products may contain materials that leach lead.
Additionally, many traditional ceramicists, particularly abroad, may be using old kilns that are contaminated with lead. In those situations, even if the artist is using lead-free materials, the products could end up contaminated anyway, according to the FDA.
Most likely, though, lead is not too much of a concern with products made in the U.S., even with ceramics made by smaller artisans. “If the pottery was made by a potter in the U.S., there is very little chance that the glaze has lead,” says Mie Kongo, an adjunct associate professor of ceramics at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Calello agrees, noting that new, American-made ceramics are generally safer than imported products. “In the U.S. the use of lead paints for dishware and also in residential buildings is strictly prohibited,” she says. “In other areas of the world these restrictions are more relaxed and may not be enforced.”
For those who have old, questionable dishes, the FDA advises consumers to test them with a lead-testing kit purchased from a hardware store, though it’s worth noting that many of these tests aren’t sensitive enough to detect the low levels legislated by Prop 65, according to Contra Costa Health Services in California.
Ceramics that are sold in California—and that’s most items that are sold online and shipped to California shoppers—are subject to Prop 65, the most stringent consumer chemical safety standard in the United States. Prop 65 requires products that may expose consumers to a specified level of lead to come with a warning label.
Dishes that are chipped or scratched, especially if they’re old or imported, are of additional concern, according to Contra Costa. This is because lead can leach from damaged and worn ceramics more easily than from intact ceramics. The New York Health Department, as well as the FDA, also consider damaged and worn ceramics as having additional risk. Kosnett notes, however, that a dish doesn’t have to be damaged for it to present a potential problem. In the case of his patient who became ill, the contaminated dishes had barely been used.
You should also never eat, drink, cook with, or store food in ceramics that are not explicitly designed to be used for those functions.
“People do paint ceramics for decorative wall hangings and things like that,” says Neal Beardmore, the production director at Heath Ceramics. “And that kind of product wouldn’t be subject to testing around Prop 65.”
Beardmore says he wouldn’t purchase ceramics from any retailer or seller that can’t speak to the product’s materials and can’t direct you to the manufacturer for more information. “It doesn’t make sense to put yourself at risk if you don’t know the origin of the materials,” he says.