“Lead is toxic even in small amounts,” he said, “but the most common way lead poisoning occurs is through long-term daily exposure to lead. If you were to eat a meal off a plate containing lead, it would be extremely unlikely to cause any problems — unless you were continuing to eat off this plate daily for a very long time.”
Most lead-tainted cookware is imported by tourists, Fralick added, because “the [commercial] importation of cookware and glassware containing lead into North America is tightly regulated.”
On the other hand, “it is nearly impossible to tell if a dish has lead in it just by looking at it,” Fralick said, so “tourists may bring back lead-containing cookware or pottery unknowingly. This is particularly a problem for cookware from Mexico, China and other countries.”
His advice: “if you are going to travel to Mexico, don’t plan on buying cookware while you are there.”
Dr. Bruce Lanphear is a professor of health sciences at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. He agreed that the issue isn’t confined to Mexico.
“China and other countries across Southeast Asia are often times a major source of lead contaminant, particularly in terms of paints,” Lanphear said. However, “Mexico does appear to have a particular problem for ceramics, because often the glaze used has very, very high concentrations of lead — as much as 75 percent.”
Labeling may not be accurate, Lanphear added. “Even though some ceramics sold in Mexico will be marked ‘no lead,’ I would say that is not an official certification,” he said.
None of this means that you can’t buy Mexican ceramics just to display.
“If you want to purchase pottery in Mexico, that’s fine,” Lanphear said. “I have, and I have it displayed in my home today. I just wouldn’t use it for eating.”
Find out more about lead poisoning at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.