SACRAMENTO — In an action likely to raise concerns around dinner tables throughout California, the state attorney general joined an environmental group Tuesday in suing 10 major dishware manufacturers for failure to warn consumers of potentially dangerous amounts of lead that can leach into food from household cups, plates and bowls.
The legal action by Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren and the Environmental Defense Fund is based on recent tests conducted by the environmental group showing that glazes used in some ceramic tableware--from fine china to ordinary dishes--contain levels of lead that present a risk of brain damage from prolonged use.
Lungren and Environmental Defense Fund attorney David Roe stressed that they don't want to cause public panic and that there are a number of steps households can take to reduce possible exposure should their dishes contain lead. But without information from the manufacturers--or without spending money on cheap but reasonably effective testing kits--consumers have no way of knowing which products contain lead and which do not.
Roe said that his group's tests made it clear that consumers could not determine lead content simply by looking at a plate. "It is not the pattern, it is not the country of manufacture, it is not the size. The problem is in the glaze," he said.
Diane C. Fisher, staff scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund, said that some plates tested could expose consumers to levels that were more than 100 times the amount that requires a warning under Proposition 65, the 1986 anti-toxics initiative.
These levels, based on prolonged use of the lead-contaminated ceramic ware, are "in the same ballpark" as the amounts consumed by children who were poisoned by consuming chips of lead-containing paint that is still found in older buildings, she said. Unfortunately, the lead leaves the glaze only slowly so that repeated use and frequent washing offer no extra protection.
Health experts say there have been instances of acute lead poisoning from ceramic ware. But the primary concern in the lawsuits is avoiding long-term exposure to lead that can have a crippling effect on memory and intelligence. The lead presents a particular health threat to the very young and to the offspring of women who have been exposed for long periods.
The purpose of the two lawsuits filed in San Francisco Superior Court on Tuesday is to force the manufacturers to warn consumers about a potential danger as required by Proposition 65.
Named in the suits are some of the world's largest and most respected manufacturers of china, including Wedgwood, Lenox, Mikasa, and Royal Doulton. The lawsuit contends that all the defendants manufacture at least some products that leach lead.
The manufacturers say they intend to cooperate to meet state standards by providing consumer warnings, but they denounced the lawsuit as an overreaction.
"Our products are totally safe and meet every federal and international requirement, often by wide margins," said David A. Hartquist, executive director of Coalition for Safe Ceramicware, an industry group.
Also named in the suit is Syracuse China, which Lungren described as the largest manufacturer of dishes for institutions and restaurants. The other defendants are Fitz & Floyd, Noritake, Pickard, Pfaltzgraff, and Villeroy & Boch.
"We do not want to start a nationwide panic with respect to lead levels in tableware," Lungren said. "Some products contain levels of lead which clearly require a public warning under Proposition 65. Others contain virtually no lead or none at all."
Nevertheless, Lungren said he personally no longer uses a ceramic pitcher to store orange juice because of the possible danger of lead leaching out.
Roe said, "This is a risk that is completely unnecessary. Lead doesn't need to be in dishware any more than it has to be in gasoline."
The lawsuits bring together a politically unlikely pair--the conservative, generally pro-business attorney general and the aggressive environmental lawyer who was one of the co-authors of Proposition 65.
The two men accused the 10 firms named in the lawsuits of withholding information about the lead content of their products. And they cautioned the companies that they must warn consumers of significant lead exposure or risk fines as high as $2,500 a day for every dish sold.
Roe and Lungren praised two other manufacturers for assuring authorities that the products they are selling in California are virtually lead-free.
Industry giant Corning Incorporated said that all of its products meet the strict Proposition 65 standards for lead. And California-based Ronnie's Ceramics agreed to switch its practices and begin selling only lead-free china in the next few months.
The lawsuits come at a time of increased efforts to reduce exposure to the commonplace element, which was once used widely in paints, water pipes, gasoline and tin cans.