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Still some serious questions about lead in pottery.

Still some serious questions about lead in pottery

It was a great find: at the native market in Mexico, the Chinese bazaar in Hong Kong, or a boutique at the nearby shopping mall. It was a handsome earthenware bowl, platter, or jar--often hand-decorated--perfect for serving your favorite chili, stew, salsa, or casserole.

So, what's the problem? Perhaps nothing, but recent tests of pottery in the Sunset kitchens shocked us. Some earthenware pieces were capable of leaching lead into food. Too much lead in the body can damage the nervous and reproductive systems, blood-forming process, and kidneys.

Lead in pottery isn't a new concern. In 1971, after much public attention to this issue, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration set safety standards for the amount of lead that can be released from a food container, and established the testing procedure. The amount of leachable lead acceptable to the FDA is 7 parts per million (ppm) for platters and trays, 5 ppm for small bowls, and 2 1/2 ppm for large bowls (as of our press time, the FDA was studying further reductions in these levels).

TheFDA also advises not using any pottery for food if the safety is questionable. Despite spot checks by the FDA, pottery that contains dangerous amounts of lead is still sold in this country; most is imported.

You can't tell if the pottery is dangerous just by looking at it.But dulled or cracked glazes, or designs painted on top of the glazes (you can feel a slight elevation), are clues. They don't mean lead is present, but they are telltale signs of careless handiwork.

The problem is usually in the finish. Glazes that color and givenonporous finishes to earthenware usually contain metals, and lead is widely used because it melts at the low temperatures used to fire earthenware. Lead glazes are safe so long as they are properly formulated, applied, and fired. But earthenware can be fired in almost any back-yard kiln. It's cheap to manufacture, and quality is often uneven.

Acidic foods can leach lead from poorly made earthenware and become contaminated. The amount of lead released depends on how long the food and container are in contact.

Highly acidic wet foods--like salads with tart dressings, sliced tomatoes, cut fruit, and fruit and vegetable juices--leach lead the fastest, although any moist food should be kept out of suspect pottery. Dry foods like breads, crackers, tortilla chips, and whole fruits and vegetables can be safely served in them.

The only way to be sure a container is safe is to have it checked by a metal testing lab (see below). Sunset's home economists have had their favorite earthenware tested; dangerous pieces have been set aside for dry foods or decorative use. Two safe tricks: if you have a bowl you aren't sure about, fit another bowl inside it; or if you're serving cool, low-liquid food, line the earthenware bowl with a single sheet of plastic wrap.

But testing your own ware isn't going to solve the basic problem.The FDA will have to step up its import inspections and begin to crack down on companies--or countries--that continue to sell dangerous pottery.
COPYRIGHT 1987 Sunset Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1987 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Date:Jul 1, 1987
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