Metal Cookware: A Previously Unrecognized Source of Lead Exposure in the United States

Jan 03, 2024 | Public Health-Seattle & King County

By Stephen G. Whittaker, Ph.D. and Katie M. Fellows, Ph.D. Hazardous Waste Management Program in King County, Washington and Public Health-Seattle & King County.

Synopsis

Children resettled from Afghanistan were found to have the highest prevalence of elevated blood lead levels of any refugee children in Washington state. We investigated and found that aluminum cookware from Afghanistan is an important, but previously unrecognized, source of lead exposure. Since then, we’ve found that metal cookware imported from other countries is also contaminated with lead.

Challenge

The prevalence of elevated blood lead levels is much higher among newly resettled refugee children in the United States than in U.S. born children. One reason for this is that these children may have been exposed to lead in their countries of origin. Once resettled, they may be further exposed to lead from paint in substandard housing, as well as from practices and products that are traditional to their home countries.

In Washington state, our Department of Health found that children resettled from Afghanistan had the highest prevalence of elevated blood lead levels of any refugee children (FFY 2016-2020 data). This prompted the Hazardous Waste Management Program in King County, Washington, to investigate the lead sources impacting local Afghan families. During our in-home investigations, we learned that many Afghan children were exposed to lead sources that have been identified previously, including glazed dishes, silverware, spices, cosmetics, jewelry, and personal care products. However, our investigators found that aluminum cookware from Afghanistan contained high lead levels and was a previously unrecognized source of lead exposure.

We subsequently expanded our investigations into cookware manufactured in India and elsewhere. We learned that many imported items contain very high lead levels, including those made from aluminum alloys and brass.

Solution

To gain a better understanding of the issue, we tested 95 cookpots. Some were donated by the Afghan community, and some we purchased from online retailers, including Amazon, Etsy, and eBay. We included stainless steel cookpots to determine whether they would be safer alternatives to aluminum and brass.

We screened the cookpots for lead content using an X-ray Fluorescence (XRF) analyzer and found that many of the aluminum and brass cookpots contained hundreds of parts per million (ppm) of lead, with some components containing tens of thousands of ppm.

We also measured how much lead could be released from cookpots into food under simulated cooking and food storage conditions.

We found that all aluminum cookpots donated by the Afghan community exceeded the Food & Drug Administration’s (FDA’s) recommended dietary limits for lead*, as did many aluminum and brass cookpots purchased in the United States. We published our data for cookware that exceeded the FDA’s recommended maximum daily intake levels on our web site. In addition to the Afghan cookware, we found that many aluminum and brass cookpots from India released very high lead levels.

In contrast, none of the stainless steel cookware we tested exceeded the recommended dietary limits.

Lead exposure 1

Donated aluminum cookpot from Afghanistan. Avg lead conc. 5,000 ppm (0 – 33,000 ppm).

Lead exposure 2

Traditional Afghan pressure cooker purchased from Etsy. Avg lead conc. 8,000 ppm (0 – 66,000 ppm).

Results

We learned that aluminum is a precious resource in many low- and middle-income countries, and cookpots may be manufactured from scrap aluminum, which may include soda cans, automobile radiators, and electronic parts. This scrap can be contaminated with lead from solder and other sources.

In the short term, we informed the FDA, who have jurisdiction over the importation and distribution of a wide range of products in the U.S. The FDA then issued an Import Alert for the most common brand of imported Afghan pressure cookers. However, the FDA does not currently regulate the lead content of metal cookware. Consequently, we shared our methodology with them to potentially inform a national standard. We also informed the largest online retailers of our findings, which ultimately led to the removal of many products from Etsy, Amazon, and eBay. The FDA subsequently provided Amazon with a test method and recommended a lead standard to share with their vendors.

We also engaged with local community-based organizations, who helped educate their communities about lead-containing cookware. This led to the development of a cookware exchange program, where community members were provided stainless steel electric pressure cookers in exchange for their traditional cookware. To date, approximately 200 families have participated in this program. We also developed cooking videos in Dari and Pashto, which show an Afghan woman cooking a traditional meal in an electric pressure cooker.

In the mid term, we reached out to global aid organizations to highlight this source of lead exposure. This led to conversations with NGOs in India and elsewhere, where they are now using our data to identify lead exposures in the countries of manufacture.

Our long-term goals include working with the FDA to develop a lead standard for metal cookware and determining whether simple modifications to cookware manufacturing can effectively bind the lead in the aluminum matrix. We have also introduced a bill into the Washington State Legislature, which would set a limit for allowable lead in metal cookware.

Lessons Learned

A major lesson learned from this project is that goods manufactured overseas and imported to the U.S. can contain hazardous levels of lead and potentially other toxic chemicals. Further, the burden of these toxicants is likely significantly greater in the countries where these products are manufactured and used more extensively. Consequently, global efforts are needed to prevent exposure to lead and other toxic chemicals in consumer products. We also learned that even though the FDA administers a standard for the lead content of ceramicware, they do not have an equivalent standard for metal cookware. Consequently, it is important to engage with regulatory agencies to ensure that the appropriate health-protective standards are implemented.

Resources

* We compared our results to the Food & Drug Administration’s (FDA’s) interim reference levels (IRLs) for lead, which are the maximum daily dietary intakes of lead from food. The FDA derived an IRL of 2.2 µg/day for children and 8.8 µg/day for people of childbearing age. See Updated interim reference levels for dietary lead to support FDA’s Closer to Zero action plan - ScienceDirect. We assumed that children and adults would consume 250 ml (1 cup) of food prepared in this cookware per day.


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