This seems to be a popular question at the moment, as I've received several inqueries about this in the past few weeks.
First, here are some posts where I've already discussed lead in dinnerware and glassware:
* Q&A: Lead in Glassware talks about choosing glassware and has some links to websites that tell about various sources of lead
* Q&A: Safe Dinnerware has a link to a list of low-lead china patterns (from 2001) and an excellent article from Environmental Defense about lead in china dishes.
Now, here's some new info.
I received a question specifically about the possibility of lead in mugs from Starbucks. Because these aren't "china", and they are made in China. Lead in pottery is an old issue that has been well-publicized and I think most conscious companies are aware of it.
So I emailed Starbucks to see if they had any comment and here is their reply:
So they don't definitively say "no lead" but I would think that they are aware of the problem and are watching for it.
Thank you for contacting Starbucks Coffee Company.
We are committed to providing our customers with high quality, safe and
desirable products. We have no reason to believe there are any issues
regarding our products sourced from China.
We have a rigorous quality assurance program and continually review
products before and after they are placed in our coffeehouses. If any
issue is found, we react quickly and appropriately to address it.
Thank you again for contacting Starbucks. If you have any further
questions or concerns, please email us at www.starbucks.com/customer
or call (800)-235-2883 to speak
with a customer relations representative.
Then I was shopping at Williams-Sonoma and wanted to buy some pottery dishes. So I asked the sales person specifically if they were lead-free and he said none of their pottery has lead. I looked on the Williams-Sonoma website and it said:
What is California Proposition 65, and how does it apply to your products?
We test all of our dinnerware, glassware and other items used for serving food to ensure that they meet FDA and California Proposition 65 requirements for lead and cadmium. In accordance with Proposition 65, for glazes that meet FDA standards but exceed Prop 65, we issue the following warning to our California customers: "The materials used as colored decorations on the exterior of this product contain lead, a chemical known to the State of California to cause birth defects or other reproductive harm." If the interior or pouring lip of a serving vessel is finished with a glaze that contains lead, we issue the following warning: "Use of this product will expose you to lead and/or cadmium, chemicals known to the State of California to cause birth defects or other reproductive harm."
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does have standards for lead in ceramicware
I checked the Pottery Barn website for a similar statement and found none (but they are owned by Williams-Sonoma, so I assume the same policy would apply), and there was no mention of lead that I could find on the Crate & Barrel website.
Risk from lead exposure differs with use. According to the FDA, a plate coming in brief contact with food, such as during a meal, is not a problem, however storage of food in that same bowl could be a risk if it contains too much lead. Especially if the food is acidic (like juice, tomatoes, coffee, and foods containing vinegar) as acids promote lead leaching.
The FDA has established maximum levels for leachable lead for various types of ceramicware, based on how frequently a piece of ceramicware is used, the type and temperature of the food it holds, and how long the food stays in contact with the piece. Cups, mugs and pitchers have the most stringent action level, 0.5 parts per million, because they can be expected to hold food longer, allowing more time for lead to leach.
The FDA allows use of lead glazes because they're the most durable, but such glazes regulate them to ensure their safety. According to the FDA, commercial manufacturers use extremely strict and effective manufacturing controls that keep the lead from leaching during use, but small potters may not be able to control the firing of lead glazes as well, so their ceramics are more likely to leach illegal lead levels. Many small potters use lead-free glazes, so if you want a completely lead-free product, this is the best place to look.
So, if a company says their ceramicware "meets FDA standards" for lead, this is NOT zero. And since this standard is required by law, we can assume that reputable businesses are complying to this law and not selling pieces that are in violation.
The most likely pieces that would have lead levels that exceed federal standards are imported pieces with brightly-colored glazes, sold by a small dealer. Most small potters I have spoken with who make their own ceramicware and sell it at craft fairs use lead-free glazes.
I had written that the only way to know for sure about lead levels in pottery was to check it with a test kit, however, a new report on lead test kits from the Consumer Product Safety Commission
says these kits are unreliable. I suggest you read this before using lead test kits to understand how to best use them and their limitations.