How to Tell if Your Dishes Have Lead

Wondering if old or antique dishes might be putting your family at risk for lead poisoning?

For most people, dishes don’t post a significant risk of lead exposure. But in some cases, lead contained in old dishes, ceramics, and other types of tableware or cookware may leach into food or drink, leading to potential health problems associated with lead poisoning.

Why Do Some Dishes Contain Lead?

In the past, lead was used as part of the glazes or decorations covering dishes and other ceramic ware. It was favored because lead provides tableware with a smooth, durable, glass-like finish. It also intensifies bright colors, especially reds, oranges, and yellows, and makes them last longer.

The Food and Drug Administration started regulating lead levels in dishes and ceramics in 1971, and since then, the regulations have been strengthened multiple times. At present, the FDA doesn’t require dishes to be 100% lead-free. However, it limits the amount of leachable lead in dishes to 3.0 micrograms per milliliter of leaching solution.

To put that into perspective, there is no known safe level of lead according to the EPA and CDC. For health screening purposes, 3.5 micrograms per deciliter of lead in blood (or 0.03 micrograms per milliliter) is the current reference level set by the CDC to identify children at high risk for lead poisoning.

How to Tell if Dishes Have Lead

If you’re concerned that you might be exposed to lead in your dishware, there are a few ways to check.

Risk Factors

Know which types of dishes are more likely to contain lead than others in order to gauge your level of risk. The majority of modern dishware sold by home goods stores and big brands don’t use lead anymore. The highest likelihood of lead exposure comes from these type of dishes:

  • Traditional glazed terra cotta (clay) dishware from Latin America
  • Highly decorated fine china or porcelain
  • Antique dishes made before 1971
  • Homemade and hand-crafted tableware
  • Dishes with bright colors or decorations on inside surfaces
  • Dishes with decorations on top of the glaze instead of beneath it
  • Glaze or decorations that have begun to wear away or corrode
  • Glaze with dusty or chalky grey residue after washing

Testing for Lead

The most practical way to test your dishes and ceramics for lead is by using at-home lead test kits. These are relatively inexpensive and can be purchased at your local hardware store or online.

Lead test kits use chemicals that change color when they react with lead. To use them, follow the instructions and swab a sample of your dishes. If the color changes, that means the presence of lead is detected.

We recommend using 3M™ LeadCheck™ Swabs, which is is one of the 3 lead kits currently recognized by the EPA for its accuracy and reliability. Even so, it may sometimes give out false negatives or false positives, so it’s a good idea to test the same area 2 or 3 times and make sure you’re getting identical results.

Professional Testing

Getting dishes professionally tested for lead is more expensive and not very practical, unless you run a restaurant or you want to have your dishes tested as part of a comprehensive lead inspection of your entire property.

There are two main ways to have dishes tested professionally. The first is by using an XRF analyzer, a specialized hand-held machine that uses x-ray fluorescence to measure lead content nondestructively (without damaging surfaces or items). The other is a special leach test done in a laboratory that measures how much lead leaches out of an item.

Frequently Asked Questions

What’s the difference between “lead-free” and “lead-safe”?

Lead-free dishes contain no lead whatsoever.

Lead-safe dishes may contain some lead, but within the allowable limits. Some of these dishes may contain lead, but very little or none of the lead actually leaches out.

Can you put leaded dishes in the dishwasher?

No. Using the dishwasher may damage the glazed surface, making it more likely to leach lead into food or rink the next time it’s used. There’s also a chance of the lead contaminating other dishes in the dishwasher.