Is lead as harmful for adults as it is for children? Is it contained in all ceramics?

Beth Rosenberg, an assistant professor in the Department of Public Health and Community Medicine, fills us in

Lead is definitely harmful for adults to ingest or breathe, a fact known since the second century A.D., when a Greek physician named Dioscorides said, “Lead makes the mind give way.” Of course, the greater the exposure, the more severe the symptoms.

Some adults are routinely exposed to large amounts of lead through their work: painters and home renovation crews removing lead-based paint; workers in smelters; people who make lead batteries, leaded paint and some kinds of jewelry. They are at risk of constipation, impotence and kidney disease, as well as neurological problems such as impaired central nervous system function, muscle weakness, fatigue, irritability and difficulty concentrating. Neuropsychological signs of lead poisoning include impairment of verbal skills, memory and perceptual speed. Additionally, both men and women exposed to lead risk producing children with developmental problems.

The best way to avoid lead exposure is to avoid places where it is used. Unfortunately, most people in Asia who make leaded paint, leaded jewelry or ceramics with lead have no choice. In the U.S., respirators are used by such workers, but they are not very effective, which is why the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration requires periodic testing of lead levels in the blood for workers exposed to lead.

Many people wonder about lead in ceramic products. Lead traditionally has been used in paints and glazes for good reason: it makes the coating more durable. According to experts in the field, lead can be in the ceramic itself, the paint applied to the item or the glaze that coats the outer surface. There is no way to tell about the presence of lead other than testing. The country of origin apparently makes no difference; one lead tester found lead—as well as arsenic, cadmium and mercury—in ceramics from the U.S., China, Mexico, Australia and Iran.

Heat and acid facilitate the leaching of lead into food and beverages, so it’s advisable not to let acidic beverages like coffee sit for hours in ceramic mugs, especially if the glaze is chipped or scratched. This is a good reason to buy your coffee mug from your local potter—those ceramics are the least likely to contain lead.

Young children face the greatest threat of exposure from lead dust in houses with windows that were painted with lead paint before it was outlawed in 1978. The best remedy is to regularly wet-wipe the sills and window troughs, where paint dust caused by opening and closing windows gathers.

Beth Rosenberg thanks Rick Rabin, a former researcher and educator at the Boston Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program, for his invaluable assistance.

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