Your Vintage Dishes and Pottery May Cause Lead Poisoning

old ceramic pottery

Raththaphon Wanjit / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Ceramic dishware and pottery from other countries can contain high amounts of lead, making them a source of lead poisoning when they are used to serve or store food. 
  • Lead is used in dishware made to be used as decorations—hung on a wall, for example—because it makes more colorful glazes.
  • Old pieces of china that were made in the United States before 1971, or which are cracked or chipped, can also have high levels of lead that can leach lead into food and beverages. 

Vintage ceramic dishware like clay pots, cups, and plates from overseas may have high levels of lead that can contaminate your food. While lead poisoning is mostly associated with dust and chips from old paint, ceramic dishes and lead-glazed pottery can also pose serious health risks.

The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene recently investigated 15 cases of lead poisoning associated with the use of traditional ceramic ware. The cases occurred in both adults and children, with levels of lead reaching as high as 53 micrograms per deciliter of blood. Typically, lead levels higher than 5 mg per deciliter of blood is considered a "significant exposure."

Lead poisoning in children can interfere with learning and cause behavioral problems. In adults, high lead levels can cause high blood pressure and affect several organ systems. In pregnant women, exposure to high amounts of lead can increase the risk of miscarriages.

“Traditional or handmade ceramic ware from various countries, including Mexico, Ecuador, Turkey and Uzbekistan, have been found to contain high levels of lead,” Paromita Hore, PhD, director of Environmental Exposure Assessment and Education at NYC's health department, tells Verywell via email. “The lead may be added to the paint or glazing to brighten colors and provide a smooth finish."

Lead poisoning due to dishware and pottery is not a problem specific to New York City. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has received reports from various jurisdictions, Hore adds.

Lead poisoning from using dishes containing lead is relatively uncommon, according to Kelly Johnson-Arbor, MD, co-medical director of the National Capital Poison Center in Washington, DC.

“It is something that we see from time-to-time but it's not something that's as common as lead exposure from water, for example, or from paint," Johnson-Arbor tells Verywell.

In the U.S., the FDA sets standards for the amount of lead in the clay, paints, and finishes in ceramic dishes, she says, but "other countries may not have the same stringent regulations."

Ceramic Mug, Lemon Water, and Heat

Johnson-Arbor published a case report of a 32-year-old woman who developed lead poisoning from regularly using a ceramic mug. When tested, the woman had a blood lead level of 44 mg per deciliter. She later gave birth to a baby girl who also had elevated levels of lead in her blood.

The cause was found to be a store-bought mug that had chipped and peeling lead glaze. She had been drinking hot lemon water from it regularly during her pregnancy and afterwards. The acidity of lemon, along with heat, were causing lead to leach out of the mug.

Foods that are acidic or hot are more likely to cause lead to leak out from dishes that are cracked or chipped. “Look for any potential breakdown of the glaze," Johnson-Arbor says. "So older dishes that are cracked or dishes that have peeling glaze, for example, should be avoided.”

Check Your Family Heirloom Dishware

In addition to ceramic ware imported from other countries, it's also worth keeping an eye out for any heirloom dishware made before 1971, when the FDA set regulations for lead levels in ceramics. Lead crystal glasses and decanters may also pose health risks.

“The best recommendation is for people to avoid using those products, especially if they were not meant to be used as cookware,” says Johnson-Arbor, adding that it's best to avoid putting food in something that's meant to be hung on the wall as decor.

You're unlikely to get severely ill from a one-time exposure to products containing lead, she adds, but they may be more dangerous for young children.

"It more concerning when people use these products over time," she says.

What This Means for You

Ceramic and pottery dishes imported from other countries may not be safe to be used for food due to their high lead content. Don’t use a dish, mug, or glass for food or beverages unless they have labeling saying they are safe to use that way.

2 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Hauptman M, Bruccoleri R, Woolf AD. An update on childhood lead poisoningClin Pediatr Emerg Med. 2017;18(3):181-192. doi:10.1016/j.cpem.2017.07.010

  2. Johnson-Arbor K, Vo K, Wong F, Gajek R. Unintentional and sequential lead exposure from a ceramic mug and maca(Lepidium meyenii)J Med Toxicol. 2018;14(2):152-155. doi:10.1007/2Fs13181-017-0649-x

By Valerie DeBenedette
Valerie DeBenedette has over 30 years' experience writing about health and medicine. She is the former managing editor of Drug Topics magazine.