C ynthia Blum was newly pregnant when she and her doctor husband decided to find out if their household was safe from lead exposure.
They sent away for a home lead testing kit. When it arrived, they unpacked a set of Italian pottery. And, "just out of curiosity," Blum pulled out a crystal decanter they had received as a wedding gift.
They tested the tableware at their Tenafly, N.J., home: The pottery was negative; the decanter was positive. Lead apparently was leaking from the crystal.
Blum called his friend, toxicologist Joseph Graziano .
Fine crystal. Classic, elegant, expensive. And hazardous to your health?
According to Graziano and Dr. Conrad Blum, who recently published preliminary results of their investigation, lead in the world's most precious crystal may be migrating into the liquids it holds.
The potential hazards suggested by their limited findings already have resulted in dramatic precautions by some lead-crystal manufacturers:
* The U.S. unit of Waterford Wedgwood, the Anglo-Irish maker of Waterford lead crystal, has stopped production of lead-crystal baby bottles and is redesigning the pricey baby gift to assure it no longer can be used to feed infants.
* Steuben and its parent company, Corning Inc., will hang gold-ribboned tags around the necks of its decanters encouraging buyers to use them "for decorative purposes only." Steuben briefly suspended sales and production of its crystal decanters and flasks "as a cautionary measure" after it learned of the study late last year.
* Most European and American crystal makers are forming committees to fund and oversee independent research into the questions and concerns raised by the Graziano-Blum study.
Lead can cause nerve damage, mental disorders and heart and kidney problems if regularly ingested in significant amounts. But lead poses special hazards for children and pregnant women, who can pass the lead on to the fetus. High levels of lead in children cause brain damage, lower IQ scores, comas, convulsions, cancer, even death.
Close to one-third of any true crystal is lead, which gives it brilliance and weight. There are no specific official guidelines for safety in such glassware. Nor have standards been developed for safe lead levels in wine, which naturally contains from 30 to 200 micrograms per liter.
The Environmental Protection Agency's maximum allowable level for lead in drinking water stands at 50 micrograms per liter, but it will drop to 20 later this year to reflect other new findings about lead's toxicity.
While some crystal manufacturers agree more research is needed, there is disagreement about consumer risk.
"Lead levels that were considered insignificant in the past are today thought to be hazardous," said Jerome Smith, executive director of the Lead Industries Assn., which includes glass makers. "We are anxious to replicate the work these doctors are reporting, but it will take time and money."
Coincidentally, a Food and Drug Administration laboratory in San Francisco has been researching lead exposure from crystal, said Michael Bolger, an FDA toxicologist researching dietary lead sources.
"This new study, along with our own early investigations, which so far are incomplete, raises a lot of questions we have to get answers for," said Bolger.
In the Jan. 19 issue of the Lancet, a prestigious British scientific journal, Blum and Graziano reported that they found high levels of lead in wine and spirits kept for long periods in lead crystal decanters and glasses.
Their limited tests showed that tiny amounts of lead migrated into wine from crystal in as little as 20 minutes.
"Our results just flabbergasted everybody, including us," said Graziano, a Columbia professor of pediatrics and pharmacology.
Blum and Graziano won't name the brands of crystal they used, saying there were large variations in contamination from different manufacturers and even from glassware made by the same company.
In one experiment, they found the natural lead level of port skyrocketed from 89 to 5,330 micrograms per liter after four months in the crystal.
Two brandies that had been in crystal decanters for more than five years accumulated about 20,000 micrograms of lead per liter--levels as high as those found in the wines of ancient Rome, which were sweetened with lead.
Experiments with wine glasses suggested that lead migrates from crystal to wine "within minutes." Although the concentrations were quite low compared to those found in decanters, and the scientists said they do not believe it risky to drink from a crystal glass occasionally, Graziano and Blum recommend reviewing the use of both crystal glasses and decanters.
Graziano and Blum, with Columbia colleague Vesna Slavkovic, next turned their attention to infants who might be drinking from crystal baby bottles. Last month, they sent a letter to the Journal of Pediatrics reporting that apple juice and infant formula seem to pull lead out of crystal as effectively as alcohol.
They found lead levels in juice samples had jumped from 1 to 166 micrograms per liter after four hours. Warm formula reached similar levels after just 15 minutes.
Because infants are more sensitive to lead than adults, the researchers say flatly that "the sale of these (crystal baby bottles) should be forbidden."
The FDA's Bolger said this week that use of crystal baby bottles is "an issue we are actively addressing. We are getting samples and will begin research as soon as we possibly can."
John Cope, a Waterford chemist and director of the European committee that will study the researchers' findings, said his firm acted quickly to stop making the popular $100 baby bottles when it learned of the risk.
"We never meant for this to be a working baby bottle," he said. "We were alarmed to find these bottles being misused to actually feed infants."
The bottles, with a removable top and nipple, will be redesigned, said Cope, so "there will be no way they can be misused."