Like many people, I’ve come home from vacation with one or more carefully wrapped goods made by local artisans. These trinkets are given a spot on a wall or shelf and act as a lovely reminder of a happy holiday, assuming they survive being thrown around by baggage handlers (and I’ve had a few that haven’t, believe me!). What I don’t do is buy artisanal cookware and use it for cooking. Why? Let me explain.
Safety risks of artisanal cookware
Cookware imported for sale in the US and Canada has to be tested and certified for safety. However, any individual can buy locally-made cookware outside the U.S. and bring it back into the country for their personal use. This is important to know because, although rare, there are reports of cookware from Vietnam, Cameroon, Mexico, China, Europe and elsewhere leading to heavy metal poisoning in people in the U.S. (R).
Researchers noted in one study that artisanal aluminum cookware from Cameroon, made from scrap metal, released significant quantities of lead; intact aluminum cookware from several other developing countries also released lead and other metals during cooking (R).
The researchers tested 42 pots in this study by boiling a dilute acidic solution in the pots for 2 hours. Of the 42, 15 released more than a microgram of lead per serving (250 mL). One pot from Vietnam released a horrifying 33, 1,126 and 1,426 mcg per serving in successive tests. Ten of the pots released more than a mcg of cadmium per serving, and 15 released more than a mcg of arsenic per serving.
The average aluminum exposure was 125 mg per serving, which is more than six times the World Health Organization’s Provisional Tolerable Weekly Intake of 20mg/day for a 70kg adult; 40 of the 42 items tested exceeded this level. Simply coating the metal reduced aluminum exposure by more than 98 percent, with similar reductions for other metals.
This kind of study highlights the potential risk of toxicity from cookware where coating has been eroded, while other studies show that there can be significant risks to health from using artisanal cookware bought on vacation.
For example, lead poisoning is a serious possibility with cookware imported from some countries. In one case report, a woman developed serious lead poisoning after repeatedly drinking hot water and lemon (an acidic solution) from a ceramic mug with a leaded glaze (R). The acid broke down the glaze over time, and the lead poisoning was also exacerbated by the woman’s use of a maca powder supplement. While many companies offer maca that has been carefully screened for contaminants, some untested products contain high levels of lead and other heavy metals.
Should you buy cookware from local vendors?
Is it worth the risk, then, to use cookware you brought home from another country? It doesn’t seem so. In 1993, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) found that approximately 15% of imported cookware products had levels of lead and/or cadmium in excess of legal limits. While this is a pretty dated statistic, it’s not clear that the situation has improved. Indeed, the FDA maintains a list of imported tableware and cookware products detained under suspicion of containing levels of these heavy metals in excess of legal limits and in 2018 alone they detained products from China, France, Mexico, and even Canada!
So, go ahead and support local artisans by buying their wares, but consider repurposing a coffee mug as a vase or paintbrush holder, and mount any decorative plates on the wall instead of using them as dinner plates.
Although not exactly cookware, it’s worth mentioning here that crystalware is another potential source of lead poisoning. As with cookware, crystalware manufactured in the U.S. and Canada or imported to either country has to meet certain safety requirements before it can be sold. However, when purchased from other countries, glasses and cups that have an exterior decorative pattern may contain and release more than trace amounts of lead or cadmium.
What about closer to home? Is it safe to buy cookware at a farmers market, for instance? Not necessarily. Artisans often sell goods in the U.S. and Canada that appear to be cookware but are not actually meant for use as such. As long as the items are not sold for use as cookware, the artisans are under no legal obligation to have the products tested for safe use in food preparation or storage.
In Canada, any glazed ceramic or glassware product with levels of lead or cadmium higher than allowable limits must be identified by a label indicating the presence of the(se) heavy metal(s) or, and this is a key distinction, incorporate a design feature such as a hole or a mounting hook that flags the object as an art piece and not to be used for food. So, next time you’re at your local farmers market and are eyeing up a soup bowl or coffee mug, have a conversation with the vendor about the types of glaze they use and if their wares are intended for use with food.