Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Lead in Vintage Pyrex: So What?

photo by Emily Carlin. See the original here.

I grew up using (what are now considered) vintage pyrex bowls and dishes. In fact, my mom and grandmother both owned a set of the same colorful nesting bowls shown above. 

My whole life, these have been my very favorite bowls to use. I learned how to cook eggs in a microwave in the little blue one. I've made a hundred batches or more of muffins, cookies, and pancake batter in the big yellow one. 

Here is picture of me with my mom making a pie crust in the green one:

So I get it. 

I get it when people are upset about a documentary film maker telling them that there is lead in their Pyrex. 

These things are part of people's childhood memories. 

A lot of people collect vintage Pyrex. Not only is it beautiful, but it makes people feel connected to their mothers and grandmothers by using their kitchen items. To be told these things associated with so many happy feelings is possibly poisoning them is hard to hear.

Some people (like me) even started collecting vintage pyrex as a safe alternative to plastic kitchenware - and to learn they were wrong in that regard is hurtful, frustrating and embarrassing. 

(click here or on the image to go directly to this post on Facebook)

The problem is, that once you know that there is lead in the coating of your vintage Pyrex (or Anchor Hocking or similar dishware) you have to decide what to do next.

Where is the lead?

It's in the paint on the outside of the dish.

Tamara Rubin, the director and producer of the forthcoming documentary, MisLEAD: America's Secret Epidemic is also the director of the Lead Safe America Foundation. She frequently tests items that are brought into their headquarters in Portland, OR. In the Facebook post that ignited a firestorm, she shows an image of a 3M Lead Check Swab after being used to test the outside of a Pyrex bowl. 

The swabs contain a powder and liquid that mix together and are rubbed on a surface to check for the presence of lead. (see a video of her doing a Lead Check Swab test here) If the swab turns pink or red, it is positive for lead. The more pink/red it is, the higher the lead content. Tamara has tested more than 100 pieces of vintage Pyrex (or similar dishes from Anchor Hocking) and every single one has tested positive for lead. (yikes!)

What about the inside?

The milk glass interiors, classic to most vintage Pyrex and Anchor Hocking pieces, commonly contain lead as well. The lead in milk glass is probably inert, however, no lab tests are currently being done on these vintage pieces. It is also probable that using the glass with highly acidic foods or using glass that is scratched may release some of the lead contained in the glass. The problem is that you won't know once you've reached the point where your bowl or dish is leaching lead.

Are my dishes safe to use?

"I don't cook with the outside of the bowl so I'm fine." - Facebook user
This was a common response to the test posted on Facebook. People insisted that since food doesn't come in contact with the outside of the bowls, these tests do nothing more than drum up fear. 

The problem is, that if lead is coming off onto a Lead Check Swab, that means it IS rubbing off - in small, even microscopic (but still dangerous) amounts - and it becomes available to be transferred to your mouth, eyes, or even your child's food or body. 

Even though you can't see it....Every time you touch it. Every time you stack it inside another dish. Every time you run it through the dishwasher. Every time you wipe it with a rag. All of these actions will release a microscopic amount of lead from the paint that can contaminate your environment.  

If you carry the dish to the table and a micro amount of lead comes off on your hands and then you turn around and start preparing your child's food, you're spreading that contamination. If you child touches the dish as it's being passed around the table and gets lead on their hands and then puts their hands in their mouth, they've just ingested lead. 

As much as I really wish I could tell you that your vintage Pyrex is still safe to use around your family, I would strongly recommend against it. Even though the amount of paint transferred with each use is small (so small you won't be able to see it), these tiny amounts of lead build up in our bodies and can have irreversible side effects - especially in children.

Is lead really that big of a deal?

"It's not like my kids are eating paint chips." - Facebook user

While chances that you will get acute lead poisoning from using vintage Pyrex (click here to read  Tamara's story about how her kids were acutely lead poisoned in 2005) are minimal, do not underestimate the damage exposure to tiny amounts of lead can do over time. As lead accumulates in the body, it can cause irreversible damage. 

Young children are the ones most prone to lead damage as their nervous systems are still developing. Common side effects in children exposed to low levels of lead over time include:
  • Reduced IQ
  • Behavior problems
  • Hearing problems
  • Learning difficulties
  • Growth delays
Knowing that most lead poisoning is not acute, but rather, happens in very small, microscopic doses over time, I personally try to avoid using any lead containing products in my home because no beautiful object is worth the risk to my family's health.

How can I tell if MY dish contains lead?

To find out if the paint on a specific dish you own contains lead, you can use 3M Lead Check Swab.

Lead Safe America will send you a free lead test kit here (donation encouraged but they will send you one regardless of your ability to donate). 

Please note that these kits are designed for testing paint (perfect for testing paint on the outside of your Pyrex or Anchor Hocking dishes) and will not be an accurate test regarding the lead content of milk glass.

For further reading...

About the Author: 
Carissa is a green lifestyle expert and mom to two boys. The owner and lead writer for Creative Green Living, she is also the author of two e-books including the best-selling beverage cookbook, Infused: Recipes for Herb & Fruit Infused Water, Tea and More. Her goal is to empower families to make healthier choices that are easy, taste great and are fun!

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  1. I tested the inside of my vintage Pyrex bowls and there was lead.

  2. What about leaded glass such as Waterford? What about depression green glass that contains uranium? Is that safe to use?

  3. Shouldn't one have permission to public quoted statements? I recall those comments being made in a private collectors group. How did you get them??

    1. If you're talking about the common objections attributed to "a Facebook User", these objections are common enough that I see them all over public forums whenever this information from Lead Safe America comes up. I am not in any private collectors groups on Facebook so I haven't lifted the comments from there.

  4. Is there lead in the vintage pyrex plates that are oven safe?

    1. There are some vintage pyrex baking dishes that have paint/color on the outside that have lead. You could get lead check swabs to check your dishes specifically.

  5. I have a vintage blue glass Pyrex bowl. There is no paint on it, nor has there ever been. Do you have information on this? Thank you for your post; it's informative.

    1. If you pop over to facebook and join this group and post a photo, you should be able to get more insight: https://www.facebook.com/groups/LeadSafe/

  6. Replies
    1. Thank you. I've definitely heard that before!

  7. Would love to know what people are doing with their pieces now we know they have lead. I have a stack of them in my kitchen I can't quite bring myself to throw in the garbage-seems so wasteful, but feel like it's not right to donate to thrift store where people who don't know they contain lead will use them. What should we do with these dishes?

    1. That's a great question. I know people who are leaving them as display-only pieces-ideally in a closed China cabinet to avoid them accumulating dust and needing to be dusted.


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