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Earthenware Coffee Mugs

Do you drink your coffee from a favorite earthenware mug every day? Do you keep your orange juice in a rustic jug you picked up for a few pesos in Mexico?

If so, there may be more in your java or o.j. than you bargained for: lead.

There is evidence that lead poisoning from dinnerware didn't end with the Roman emperors. In fact, some doctors and lead experts believe that consumers are buying and using ceramic dinnerware that is leaching lead at levels that pose a serious, even life-threatening, health hazard.

"It's pandemic, " said Don Wallace, an industrial hygienist who nearly died from lead poisoning finally traced to pottery that he and his wife had bought in Italy. Wallace, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, got his master's degree in industrial hygiene because of his experience and, at his own cost, has tested hundreds of suspect items.

"How many time bombs are sitting out there? . . . The number is manyfold more than the most liberal estimate that exists now, " he said.

Indeed, Wallace was responsible for alerting the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to three items recalled within the last year because they were found to have lead levels exceeding the allowable federal standard.

In May, 1986, the FDA ordered the California mail-order retailer Williams-Sonoma to recall 16, 000 earthenware Cazuela cooking pans made in Spain after some were found to have 95 times the amount of lead than is considered safe. Two months later, Williams-Sonoma also recalled 2, 000 wine jugs from the same Spanish manufacturer after the FDA found that some released almost three times the amount of lead allowed.

6, 000 Pitchers Recalled

In September and in October, 1986, Pier I Inc., with 350 stores nationwide, recalled 6, 000 earthenware pitchers from Italy, some of which were releasing almost eight times the allowable lead, according to the FDA.

In all three recalls, the problem was caused by lead-regularly used in making colorful glazes-leaching from the surface because the foreign-made pottery was not fired at the high temperatures legally required in the United States.

The effects of lead poisoning are broad and can be long lasting: hypertension, heart and kidney damage, stroke, aggressiveness, depression and, in children, a lower IQ. What is worse, lead experts say, is that many doctors misdiagnose the symptoms of acute lead poisoning, which include anemia, fatigue, abdominal pain and loss of wrist strength. Other subtle, longer-term effects-such as lowered IQ-can go undetected altogether.

"They will remove your appendix before they will test for lead poisoning, " said Dr. Richard P. Wedeen, associate chief of staff for research and development at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in East Orange, N.J., and an author of a history of lead poisoning. "I think we really don't know how much lead poisoning exists in our society, and it's hard to estimate how much is caused by (improperly fired) ceramics."

According to the FDA, the problem is not with dinnerware made by reputable U.S. manufacturers but with pottery and some stoneware made in developing or poorer countries-most prominently Mexico and China-where firing temperatures are less stringently monitored. Pottery-unlike porcelain, bone china and most stoneware that must be fired at high temperatures-can be, if not monitored, fired at lower temperatures that allow the lead to break down and be discharged into food or liquids.

This process can be quickened when the improperly fired ceramic is exposed to acidic juices, vinegar or coffee, is put in the dishwasher or is scrubbed regularly. Unfortunately, to the naked eye, a piece of lethal pottery will look the same as one that has been fired at the right temperature.

FDA Lacks Manpower

With imports accounting for at least 60% of 1985 ceramic dinnerware sales in the United States, according to the U.S. Potters' Assn., the FDA has stepped up efforts to spot-check foreign-made dinnerware for lead levels. But FDA officials admit that the agency does not have the manpower to test many of the incoming shipments.

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