retro-vintage-porcelain-flatware-secret-2-cropped
Shutterstock

Send your question to Umbra!

Q. My mom passed along the set of dishes that my grandmother hand-carried home from China, back when she and my grandfather were among the very first U.S. tourists to travel there in the early ’70s. And they’re beautiful, with colorful glazed patterns. The trouble is, the glazes all contain lead. (I checked.) I’d rather not just dump them as household hazardous waste, but I certainly don’t want to give them away to someone who might unknowingly use them for food. Any suggestions? I’m not about to take up pique assiette myself, but I suppose I could find someone who does it.

Diana F.
Portland, Ore.

A. Dearest Diana,

We’ve all heard the saying about gift horses and mouths. In your case, I’d like to propose an addendum: “Unless that horse is china set that could be coated in lead.” You were wise to check into the safety of your inherited dinnerware, and you’re right to be concerned — but I don’t think you necessarily have to kick your lovely heirlooms out of the house.

As you know, decorated Asian plates – along with traditional Mexican terra cotta, elaborately painted, brightly colored, or handcrafted dinnerware – might harbor lead in their glazes. (Also be on the lookout for crystal, the other major dining-room offender.) Worse news: That lead can leach from the dishes into your food and drink, even if the glaze and the item appear whole and undamaged. Experts think the danger of lead from your tea set pales in comparison to what you might find in paint or contaminated soil, but we’re still dealing with a highly toxic substance here.

I could tell you that’s especially true for acidic foods such as orange juice or tomatoes, which accelerate leaching. And I could urge you never to heat or store foods in leaded dishes. But really, you only need one rule: Keep anything that’s going into your mouth far, far away from the vintage china.

By the way, anyone who’s been suddenly seized with panic about his own hand-me-downs or thrift-store scores can buy a lead-testing kit at a home improvement or hardware store. Even without the scientific proof, we can assume that an older plate, especially a decorated and/or imported one, probably contains lead.

So what to do with the stuff? If the dishes are family treasures – or you just like the look of them – it’s OK to simply display the plates as decoration. Touching lead isn’t the issue so much as swallowing or inhaling it, so as long as you wash your hands after setting up the dishes, you’re in good shape. But if that still makes you uncomfortable – maybe you’re pregnant or will be one of these days, or you have kids around the house – you have my blessing to sell or give them away. Of course, you must disclose the dinnerware’s toxic nature and make sure the new owners understand not to eat off of it. (By all means, go ahead and send them this column!)

As far as pique assiette goes, Diana, I’m leery of it when it comes to lead plates. Perhaps I’m overcautious, but a significant way lead infiltrates our bodies is through dust. I couldn’t find any evidence that broken china specifically creates troublesome dust, but it seems reasonable that it could. Personally, I’d prefer that lead locked up in glaze for as long as possible.

Decoratively,
Umbra