Dinnerware—whether you love it or it’s just something that showed up in your home one day after your mom visited—is something you need. But some of those plates and bowls may be hiding dirty little secrets.
There are various types of non-toxic dinnerware on the market, but many pieces are made with harmful materials, like lead or cadmium. These chemicals can be harmful to adults and children. However, many people don't realize that their dinnerware may contain these toxic materials.
While sourcing the best dishes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, it’s important to consider what you may be eating off of. Depending on the type, style, and manufacturer of the dinnerware, there may be lead and cadmium hiding in the dish. Even small amounts of these chemicals are not safe when it comes to your health, and you’re best off steering clear from these harmful toxins altogether.
At Fable, we offer sustainably-crafted dinnerware with no lead or cadmium, and we’d love to shed some light on why these chemicals are harmful and how you can avoid them.
What is Lead and Where is it Found?
Lead is a naturally occurring element that you can find in the Earth's crust and in many different parts of our environment.
People can be exposed to lead inside and outside their homes since it has been used in fossil fuels, leaded gasoline, different industrial facilities, and paint. Older homes have lead paint on the inside and outside, as well as lead in the plumbing and pipes of the house. Surprisingly, you also used to be able to find lead in a variety of everyday products, like dinnerware, batteries, and cosmetics—which is pretty bad.
Federal and state regulatory standards have worked to lower the amount of lead in air, drinking water, soil, consumer products, and food. While most companies have largely stopped using lead, very small trace amounts are still allowed to be present in products. This lead can infiltrate the environment, which can cause some serious problems for ecosystems.
Industrial industries that dig in the earth can release lead into the air, allowing it to travel long distances before settling. The lead can even seep into our groundwater, depending on the lead compound and the type of soil it's in.
Let's dive further into the different sources of lead exposure:
You can find lead in a wide variety of older products, such as older painted toys, furniture, toy jewelry, cosmetics, food or liquid containers, and plumbing materials. While new products should be fine, if you have a lot of heirloom dishes or old toys from your grandparents, it might be something to watch out for.
Since lead was commonly used in interior paint, it is often found in older homes. Homes built before 1978 most likely have lead-based paint. After 1978, the federal government banned consumer use of lead-based paint. Even though lead paint is no longer sold, it is still present in millions of homes. You can often find it under layers of newer paint.
Similar to homes, lead paint can also be found in schools. Older playground equipment may still contain old lead-based paint, and artificial turf made from shredded rubber used for school football fields or playground surfaces might also contain lead.
In Drinking Water
A common way people are exposed to lead is through drinking water. Since lead can be found in plumbing materials, it can seep into the water as the pipes begin to corrode. Homes built before 1986 often have these lead pipes in them. In 2011, the Safe Drinking Water Act made changes to reduce the maximum amount of lead allowed. Small amounts of lead are still permitted. One of the most common issues now is with brass or chrome-plated brass faucets and fixtures that have lead solder.
The Dangers of Lead
Now that you know what lead is and the different places you might encounter it, it’s also important to know why you should steer clear of it.
If you swallow lead, breathe it in, or absorb lead particles, you might be at risk for dangerous health effects. The worst effects are often experienced from breathing in lead.
When lead gets into your body, it is stored in your bones, blood, and tissue. As you age and your bones demineralize, the lead seeps out.
When a person is exposed to very high levels of lead in a short period of time, they may experience:
- Abdominal pain
- Feeling tired or weak
- Loss of appetite
- Memory loss
- Pain or tingling in the hands and/or feet
Some of these symptoms may not occur right away, and lead poisoning is often overlooked since many of these symptoms can also be tied to other things. However, it can be dangerous to not recognize lead poisoning when it happens.
Exposure to high levels of lead may cause anemia, as well as kidney and brain damage, which are all very serious health issues. People who experience prolonged exposure to lead may also be at risk for high blood pressure, heart disease, and kidney disease. In extreme cases, very high lead exposure may even result in death.
Pregnant women may want to be extra careful when it comes to lead. If their unborn child is exposed to lead, it can damage the developing baby's nervous system. Behavior and intelligence can be affected even with low levels of lead exposure in the womb, and over-exposure may cause miscarriage, stillbirth, and infertility in both women and men.
Lead has also been linked to cancer by the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).
As you can see, there are countless reasons to avoid lead. Unfortunately, though, you can still find small amounts of lead in dinnerware. In fact, it’s only one of many harmful materials to avoid when it comes to your beloved plates and bowls.
What is Cadmium?
Cadmium is a heavy metal and, like lead, is found naturally occurring in the Earth's crust.
Cadmium combines with other substances such as sulfur, chlorine, and oxygen. You’ll often find these compounds attached to tiny particles in the air and in soil and rocks. Mining operations bring this heavy metal to the surface, and the wind and rain can pick it up and spread it.
Globally, cadmium production nearly doubled between 1950 and 1990. Today, about 20,000 tons of cadmium per year are used worldwide, although some areas produce more of it than others. Asia's cadmium production has skyrocketed, while in Europe, it has slowed down.
Thanks to significant changes and improvements in smelting and refining technologies, there have been massive decreases in cadmium discharge into the environment. Unfortunately, though, it still poses a significant risk.
Many manufactures use cadmium in their products, including dinnerware, pigments, metal, coatings, and batteries. While most cadmium is used for the production of batteries and in the electroplating process, another major use is for ceramics.
How People Are Exposed to Cadmium
One of the main ways cadmium exposure happens is through diet, since cadmium is absorbed into plants and animal foods that we eat. It’s particularly an issue with seafood, because once cadmium makes it into the water, aquatic animals and shellfish absorb it. That means you can often find this harmful metal in fish, mussels, oysters, and crab.
That said, harmful levels of cadmium are most commonly found in people who work closely with heavy metals. This means that while it’s possible to be exposed to a high, harmful level of cadmium even if you don’t work with it, it's relatively unlikely.
Another common way cadmium enters the body is through smoking cigarettes. There is cadmium in every cigarette, thanks to the chemicals used during the tobacco growing process. As a result, every time you inhale cigarette smoke, you’re also getting a dose of cadmium.
The Dangers of Cadmium
There are several ways that high levels of cadmium can be harmful to your health.
Much like lead, cadmium can cause damage to major organs. It can cause the kidneys to shrink and the lungs to be damaged, leading to a chronic cough, and can further cause bones to soften and weaken. Breathing air with high levels of cadmium can increase the risk of lung cancer, or even death.
Recent studies suggest that low environmental exposure to cadmium in industrialized countries can negatively affect the kidneys and bones of the general population. However, more research is needed to prove that these health issues are not occurring because of aging, diseases, and other factors not related to cadmium exposure.
How to Reduce Risk of Cadmium Exposure
If you’re concerned by all this information, don’t worry. There are a few things that you can do to reduce your risk of cadmium exposure and keep yourself healthy. First up, to all the smokers—one of the best ways to reduce cadmium exposure is to quit, or to at least significantly cut back on the number of cigarettes you smoke.
Another helpful step is to load up your diet with calcium, iron, protein, and zinc, which all may help reduce the amount of cadmium your gut absorbs.
Next up, go through the items in your home and get rid of anything that may contain cadmium. Basically, you can Marie Kondo your life, but instead of getting rid of anything that doesn’t spark joy, you’re getting rid of heavy metals. You can't absorb cadmium simply by touching it, so feel free to keep the batteries. But if it's something you’re eating off of, like your plates or bowls, you may want to consider replacing them with a safer version.
Cadmium Exposure for Children
Children can be exposed to these metals the same way adults are: through air, food, and, strangely enough, old paint chips. Unfortunately, these heavy metals tend to have a more significant impact on children than they do adults. Adults can usually handle higher levels of these metals before showing signs of toxicity. Children, on the other hand, display signs of severe poisoning at lower levels, and they tend to absorb heavy metals more quickly.
Infants and young children are the most vulnerable to lead poisoning. As many of us know first hand, they like to put everything in their mouths when they’re exploring. This means that they can end up accidentally ingesting lead paint chips. They can also get lead dust on their hands, which they then put in their mouths.
You might also find cadmium in some old, inexpensive children's jewelry, which is thankfully no longer a problem due to relatively new industry standards. In 1978, America banned lead-based paints for children's toys and other products, which was also a great step forward.
Lead poisoning in children can result in everything from developmental delays to seizures. In newborns, lead poisoning can cause premature birth, lower body weight, and slow down their growth. Lead harms the production of blood cells and the absorption of calcium. Children need calcium to grow strong bones, teeth, and muscles.
In fact, one study led by Harvard shows that children with high levels of cadmium exposure are three times more likely to have learning disabilities.
A common form of dinnerware for children is plastic, which may contain lead and cadmium. When you microwave your children's food on these plastic plates, it allows these harmful metals to seep into their food. Highly acidic foods can also draw out these metals. So while that Thomas the Tank Engine or princess plate might be cute, you’re probably better off serving your child food on real plates.
If a child does get lead or cadmium poisoning, steps can be taken to help them. In extreme cases, children may need to be hospitalized. With lower levels of exposure, doctors may just recommend upping the amount of calcium, iron, and vitamin C in their diets.
Other Toxic Materials Used in Dinnerware
Want to know something even scarier? Other toxic materials can be present in dinnerware besides just lead and cadmium. One of the biggest culprits is plastic tableware, so be mindful when you’re purchasing plates, bowls, and cups to ensure that you’re being as safe as possible.
Here are a few things to watch out for:
Melamine is a chemical compound that is toxic to the human body when digested. The FDA has ruled that it is safe for use in dinnerware as long as it's not microwaved, but we think we’ll steer clear anyway.
Polyvinyl chloride (PVC, or vinyl) plastic is used in many different products, including dinnerware. PVC can contain other harmful chemical additives, including lead and cadmium. That’s another big no for us.
Bisphenol A (BPA) is an industrial chemical also used to make plastics. It is often present in dinnerware and containers for food and beverages. BPA can leach into food and drinks, and can have potentially harmful side effects. Exposure to this chemical can lead to problems with the brain and prostate glands.
Bisphenol S (BPS) is a chemical cousin to BPA, and is also commonly found in plastics and other consumer products. Researchers linked BPS to reproductive issues and cancer susceptibility in animal studies.
You might know this word from your shampoo, because there’s also a big movement to remove these from beauty products. Phthalates are industrial chemicals that are commonly used to soften PVC plastic. It is also used as a solvent in many different products. It can damage various organs, the reproductive system in particular.
When dishes with these chemicals are microwaved repeatedly, the chemicals can seep into food. So while the FDA allows companies to use them in dinnerware, it warns people not to heat those dishes—which can feel like a hassle when you’re trying to eat a hot meal in a pinch. Plus, it’s also recommended that you avoid placing very hot food on dishes with these chemicals because that increases the risk of leaching as well. We don’t know about you, but we’re not exactly willing to give up eating a delicious, piping hot meal.
Does Your Dinnerware Contain Lead or Cadmium?
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates the use of cadmium and lead in products that may come into contact with food, but that doesn’t mean that they’ve been eliminated entirely.
Dinnerware that’s made in America can still have lead and cadmium in it, but only in trace amounts. However, not all imported products are tested, so there's no way to know if these standards are being met. On top of that, it can sometimes be difficult to even find out if these chemicals have been included—there’s not exactly an ingredient list.
The best way to avoid dinnerware with these harmful chemicals is to only purchase from companies that are very clear that they're non-toxic and lead-free. A company that avoids these harmful metals and chemicals should be proud of that fact and willing to shout it from the mountaintops—just like we are at Fable.
Phrases To Stay Away From
According to the FDA, dishes that leach more than three parts per million of these chemicals are supposed to be labeled with one of the following phrases:
- "For Decorative Purposes Only"
- "Not for Food Use"
- "May Poison Food"
- "Glaze Contains Lead"
- "Food Use May Result in Lead Poisoning"
- "Not for Food Use—Food Consumed from this Vessel May be Harmful"
Dinnerware that can't be microwaved also may contain harmful chemicals. Even if these pieces are within the FDA's regulations, it may be best to avoid them.
Safe Dinnerware and Labeling to Look For
There are plenty of safe dinnerware options out there, including the hand-finished stoneware sets we sell at Fable.
Our simple mission is to bring joy to every meal, and we’re pretty sure that including harmful chemicals or heavy metals in our products would throw a wrench in that plan.
That’s why Fable's dinnerware is made from premium clay in Portugal. It is lead-free, non-toxic, and safe to use in the microwave. Best of all, you don’t have to worry about contaminating food in any way.
We don't want to produce one-time-use products that will end up in a landfill in a year. That’s why we only use durable, quality materials that will last for years to come—and the style will last just as long. Our sleek, simple designs fit in with any style of decor, so you can keep these dishes even as you update the rest of your kitchen around them.
Our ethical craftsmanship goes beyond just avoiding the use of toxic materials. We also make all of our packaging to be 100% recyclable and plastic-free. At Fable, we care about the environment and our carbon footprint, and we consciously choose to work with vendors who do, too. We are taking steps to offset any greenhouse gas emissions that result from shipping our dinnerware from Portugal.
When using dinnerware from Fable, you can feel good about what you are setting your table with.
Keeping Safe from Harmful Toxins
Cadmium and lead can be incredibly harmful when ingested by adults and children, and they all too frequently show up in dinnerware. They can cause kidney, lung, and brain damage, impact children’s development, and much more. Luckily, these chemicals are avoidable.
Start protecting yourself and your family by replacing dinnerware you are unsure about with lead and cadmium-free pieces. Not sure where to look? Fable offers non-toxic dinnerware that is durable and elegantly designed to fit in with any home's design aesthetic.