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Is it Safe to Eat Off Vintage Plates?

I've been an apartment-dweller my entire adult life. That, and the fact that I haven't gotten married so far (or, more to the point, compiled a wedding registry) means that I have been eating off the same set of four place settings from Target for years.Now that I'm buying my first house, I was exc...

Turquoise fiesta ware, courtesy of Flickr user jigabugbaby


I've been an apartment-dweller my entire adult life. That, and the fact that I haven't gotten married so far (or, more to the point, compiled a wedding registry) means that I have been eating off the same set of four place settings from Target for years.

Now that I'm buying my first house, I was excited to learn that the deal would include a complete set of vintage Fiestaware, the colorful and collectible line of ceramic tableware that was produced from 1936 to 1973. (It was revived in 1986, in slightly different form and colors.) The pieces' simple art deco designs, edged with concentric grooved rings, and candy colors have made Fiestaware one of the most popular ceramic lines in history.

But my excitement over my new acquisition was tempered almost immediately, when my realtor asked, "Doesn't Fiestaware contain lead?" Lead poisoning can cause stomach problems, headaches, and even seizures in adults, and is especially dangerous for children and fetuses because it affects the development of the brain and nerves.

An Internet search only confused me. Not only was I still unclear whether I could get lead poisoning from eating off the old plates, I discovered a new, even more alarming concern: some Fiestaware contains uranium and is radioactive!

I contacted the Food and Drug Administration, hoping for a clearer picture of the dangers. Siobhan DeLancey, an FDA press officer, responded:
First, as a bit of background, FDA established and began enforcing limits on leachable lead in tableware 40 years ago. Obviously, any ware, Fiestaware or otherwise, manufactured prior to that era was not subject to FDA limits, because they didn't exist. This doesn't necessarily mean that old ware is unsafe, but consumers who are concerned about such a possibility can use home lead test kits (available in hardware stores) to screen old ware to determine whether it may leach high levels of lead into food.

We do not recommend not using old ware unless it shows signs of deterioration such as cracking or pitting of the glaze. This could be a sign that the glaze is disintegrating and could allow lead to leach into food. In addition to using a home test kit, consumers who want to be cautious might choose to avoid storing foods in older holloware (bowls), consuming hot and acidic liquid beverages such as coffee or tea out of cups, and heating bowls, cups and plates in the microwave. Again, these are qualified recommendations; the ware is not necessarily unsafe because it is old, but it may not comply with current FDA standards.

Some old Fiestaware from decades ago has been stated to have contained uranium oxide in its glaze, capable of emitting very low levels of radioactivity that would not pose a health risk.
So, it sounds like I probably won't set off any Geiger counters after eating off my Fiestaware. But the lead issue is still up in the air, at least until I can test the dishes. If nothing else, the turquoise pitcher will make an adorable vase.
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About Lisa Bramen
Lisa Bramen

Lisa Bramen was a frequent contributor to Smithsonian.com's Food and Think blog. She is based in northern New York and is also an associate editor at Adirondack Life magazine.

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