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Safe Serving : Some lead is inevitable in ceramic tableware. But whether a user ingests the substance depends on how a dish is used.


It's time to get out the good chinaware to put on the table for holiday dinners. You've just counted the plates and determined you haven't enough to accommodate the unexpected guests without having to use the everyday plates. Then you hear on the radio another item about lead poisoning from dishes.

Omigod. Is someone going to get sick? Who will it be? The people eating from the good tableware or the everyday? What to do?

"Don't throw out the dishes," said Greg Smith of the Ventura County Environmental Health Department.

"And you don't have to stop buying new tableware either," added Elizabeth Huff, a food inspector, also with the department.

I had called to get the official word on all the recent media fuss about lead in the dining room. In the last few weeks, the California attorney general's office has mandated Proposition 65 notices to be posted anywhere that ceramic tableware is being sold to notify potential buyers of the possible dangers of lead in these products. And wine bottlers must notify potential customers of possible dangers from the lead wrapped around the tops of wine bottles.

This article is about the tableware aspect. That's because ceramic manufacturers can't just switch to plastic materials as have many wine bottlers. There is apparently always going to be a little lead in our tableware, because that's how you get the good quality glaze you want. For 30 years, the ceramics industry here and abroad has been lowering the amount of lead (like the gasoline industry). But some is here to stay. Thus the Proposition 65 warning.

So we're still staring at our tableware. We didn't throw it out. But what do we do with it?

Huff and Smith work closely with Bruce Morden at the state health services office in Ventura. In response to the media fuss, Morden is providing a newly published guide called "Lead in Ceramic Tableware."

"More attention should be given to items used daily rather than infrequently," he said. A very polite way to get us to stop fretting about lead in the rarely used reindeer-pattern ceramic plates.

There are a lot of substances in our lives that, if taken in prolonged doses, will hurt us. Sometimes my family refers darkly to the "basic food groups"--salt, fat, sugar, nicotine and alcohol. To this should be added lead, according to experts, particularly because in certain quantities it is known to cause birth defects.

Because it's present in the "frit" or silica that's melted down to make most ceramic glazes, it gets into the food chain willy-nilly when we put food on our plates.

Minute amounts of lead are dislodged when acid foods like citrus or vinegar--or hot foods like coffee or soup--sit in the dish for a long time. So our local experts suggest, rather sensibly, that we cultivate certain practices that minimize our food's contact with certain dishes.

Don't store food, especially acetic food, in ceramic vessels. The secret is to prepare the food and eat it--using ceramic vessels and plates all along the way if you wish. But don't leave stuff standing around in bowls or lying in the refrigerator on ceramic plates.

"Lead in Ceramic Tableware" goes on to discuss home lead testing. Once again, time is an important factor. The test involves putting a substance on your plate or in your bowl and leaving it there for 24 hours. A shorter period will not produce results.

If you are a restaurateur or in the catering profession, you may want a kit with more than eight tests in it. The company with the 800 number sells them by lots of 100.

But why should you test at all if length of exposure is the real--and therefore controllable--issue?

Despite stringent U.S. and state government restrictions in "parts per million" of lead in ceramics, there are some products circulating that exceed legal limits.

If you do some home testing, you'll be able to determine only if prolonged eating off your tableware will produce lead leaching in violation of the FDA standards.

I conducted an informal survey of Ventura County department stores to see whether they were displaying the Proposition 65 warning in their tableware departments. The law said that as of mid-November they had to do this.

Sure enough, there it was, by every cash register. Jim Waterson, a spokesman for May Co., fielded my questions about the effect this was having on business.

"Maybe people are becoming immune to Prop. 65 warnings. It hasn't affected business. The general slowdown makes it difficult to track exactly, though."

I heard that from Broadway and Bullocks. And to my surprise, everyone else I asked--health officials, the attorney general's office, even the lawyers for the ceramic manufacturers--said the same thing.

In this era when government is telling us that we need to take care of ourselves, perhaps that is what we are doing.


For information on lead in ceramic tableware call:

* Ventura County Environmental Health Department, 654-2813.

Ventura branch of California Department of Health Services, 654-4887.

* U.S. Food and Drug Administration, (213) 252-7597.

California attorney general's consumer complaint line, (800) 323-2333.

Lead testing kits are available for $10 at Home Depot in Oxnard and Holiday Hardware in Thousand Oaks, Simi Valley and Camarillo. For volume orders, call the Frandon Co., (800) 634-2341. Tests cost $30 per 100.

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