10 Dishware Firms Sued for Lack of Lead Warning


In an action likely to raise concerns around dinner tables throughout California, the state attorney general joined an environmental group Tuesday in suing 10 major dishware manufacturers for failure to warn consumers of potentially dangerous amounts of lead that can leach into food from household cups, plates and bowls.

The legal action by Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren and the Environmental Defense Fund is based on recent tests conducted by the environmental group showing that glazes used in some ceramic tableware--from fine china to ordinary dishes--contain levels of lead that present a risk of brain damage from prolonged use.

Lungren and Environmental Defense Fund attorney David Roe stressed that they don’t want to cause public panic and that there are a number of steps households can take to reduce possible exposure should their dishes contain lead. But without information from the manufacturers--or without spending money on cheap but reasonably effective testing kits--consumers have no way of knowing which products contain lead and which do not.


Roe said that his group’s tests made it clear that consumers could not determine lead content simply by looking at a plate. “It is not the pattern, it is not the country of manufacture, it is not the size. The problem is in the glaze,” he said.

Diane C. Fisher, staff scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund, said that some plates tested could expose consumers to levels that were more than 100 times the amount that requires a warning under Proposition 65, the 1986 anti-toxics initiative.

These levels, based on prolonged use of the lead-contaminated ceramic ware, are “in the same ballpark” as the amounts consumed by children who were poisoned by consuming chips of lead-containing paint that is still found in older buildings, she said. Unfortunately, the lead leaves the glaze only slowly so that repeated use and frequent washing offer no extra protection.

Health experts say there have been instances of acute lead poisoning from ceramic ware. But the primary concern in the lawsuits is avoiding long-term exposure to lead that can have a crippling effect on memory and intelligence. The lead presents a particular health threat to the very young and to the offspring of women who have been exposed for long periods.

The purpose of the two lawsuits filed in San Francisco Superior Court on Tuesday is to force the manufacturers to warn consumers about a potential danger as required by Proposition 65.

Named in the suits are some of the world’s largest and most respected manufacturers of china, including Wedgwood, Lenox, Mikasa, and Royal Doulton. The lawsuit contends that all the defendants manufacture at least some products that leach lead.


The manufacturers say they intend to cooperate to meet state standards by providing consumer warnings, but they denounced the lawsuit as an overreaction.

“Our products are totally safe and meet every federal and international requirement, often by wide margins,” said David A. Hartquist, executive director of Coalition for Safe Ceramicware, an industry group.

Also named in the suit is Syracuse China, which Lungren described as the largest manufacturer of dishes for institutions and restaurants. The other defendants are Fitz & Floyd, Noritake, Pickard, Pfaltzgraff, and Villeroy & Boch.

“We do not want to start a nationwide panic with respect to lead levels in tableware,” Lungren said. “Some products contain levels of lead which clearly require a public warning under Proposition 65. Others contain virtually no lead or none at all.”

Nevertheless, Lungren said he personally no longer uses a ceramic pitcher to store orange juice because of the possible danger of lead leaching out.

Roe said, “This is a risk that is completely unnecessary. Lead doesn’t need to be in dishware any more than it has to be in gasoline.”


The lawsuits bring together a politically unlikely pair--the conservative, generally pro-business attorney general and the aggressive environmental lawyer who was one of the co-authors of Proposition 65.

The two men accused the 10 firms named in the lawsuits of withholding information about the lead content of their products. And they cautioned the companies that they must warn consumers of significant lead exposure or risk fines as high as $2,500 a day for every dish sold.

Roe and Lungren praised two other manufacturers for assuring authorities that the products they are selling in California are virtually lead-free.

Industry giant Corning Incorporated said that all of its products meet the strict Proposition 65 standards for lead. And California-based Ronnie’s Ceramics agreed to switch its practices and begin selling only lead-free china in the next few months.

The lawsuits come at a time of increased efforts to reduce exposure to the commonplace element, which was once used widely in paints, water pipes, gasoline and tin cans.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration quietly instructed its staff to begin enforcing new, reduced lead standards for ceramic ware--cutting the permitted levels allowed in dishes sold in the United States by more than half.


The decision to implement the new federal standards was done without any fanfare “because there is not a public health need for consumers to radically change their behavior, or to start throwing away their favorite china from the cabinet,” said Michael Taylor, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for policy.

Taylor noted that the level of lead exposure has been reduced in recent years in response to growing evidence about the risks to the developing nervous system of the fetus and the young child.

“It’s ironic and a little unfortunate to the extent that activities taken to improve things are also cause for people to panic about the problem,” Taylor said.

However, Lungren pointed out Tuesday that federal and state authorities have different legal roles in regulating lead.

Manufacturers tÿûdition5iecondaliforniatheyhat do not meet federal standards are prevented from marketing their products in the United States. Products found to have high levels of lead can be confiscated.

California’s Proposition 65 imposes even tougher standards on any toxic chemical known to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive effects.


But instead of barring the sale of products that fail to meet the initiative’s standards, manufacturers and merchants are only required to warn consumers of the possible dangers. As a result of the measure, a number of companies now routinely issue warnings to consumers for products as varied as alcoholic beverages, gasoline and tobacco.

Since passage of the measure, the state attorney general along with private citizens have filed about 30 lawsuits against manufacturers, merchants and others for failure to warn their customers of potential health risks.

Lungren pointed out that he has filed suit against wine makers for lead levels in wine, and against the manufacturers of fine crystal decanters for lead in those products as well.

The Danger in Your Dishes

Most glazed ceramicware or china dishes contain lead in the glaze and is some cases can contaminate food and drink. Here is a look at what is safe and what may not be:


Because there are so many kinds of china and ceramicware, only testing can determine danger with certainty. But if your dishes fall into categories 1 through 4, they deserve particular attention. Category 5 indicates extreme danger, but is rare.

1. Old china: Anything handed down from a previous generation, and made before lead was recognized as a hazard.


2. Homemade or handcrafted china: Either from the U.S. or abroad, unless you can determine that the maker used a lead-free glaze or used high-temperature, commercial-type firing practices.

3. Highly decorated, multicolored inside surfaces: Any items with decorations on the area that comes in contact with food or drink.

4. Decoration atop the glaze: It is often possible to feel decoration applied on top of glaze or to see brush strokes.

5. Corroded glaze: Look for a corroded surface or a dusty or chalky gray residue on the glaze after the china has been washed.


For questionable pieces of china, follow these practices:

* Don’t store foods or drinks in chinaware unless you are certain it is lead-free. This is particularly true of foods high in acid, which can leach lead from the glazed surface.

* Don’t serve highly acid foods in questionable china. Examples of acidic foods: orange juice, coffee, tea, apple juice, tomatoes, cola-type soft drinks and salad dressings with vinegar.


* Don’t use questionable pieces of china in your everyday routine.

* Don’t heat or microwave in questionable china, because heat can speed up lead leaching.


In general, these include glass dishes, which generally have no glaze; stoneware dishes, normally coated with a no-lead material; lead-free china or certified low-lead china. Check with the store or manufacturer.

Source: Environmental Defense Fund

Lead Information

For more information about possibly dangerous dishes:

California Department of Health Services, Food and Drug Branch, 714 P Street, Sacramento 95814

Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 200 C Street SW, Washington, D.C. 20201