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Mar 10, 2012 03:55 PM

Risks of vintage cookware

Many of us here, myself included, will not buy cookware made in China for many reasons, one of which is the question of materials. Is there any concern with what is in vintage cookware? Our standards in the US have evolved over the years and lead was at one point an additive in many things. Is this a concern with vintage cookware? What else could possibly be hidden in these items?

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  1. what were the 'many things' where lead was an additive? Obviously paint, and some glazes. Do you have something else in mind?

    1 Reply
    1. re: paulj

      Nothing really in mind in general, just wondering if there's anything to look out for.

    2. Not all, but some vintage copper cookware is not lined with pure tin, but with an alloy of tin and lead and/or cadmium. It's a good idea to have the lining of old copper cookware tested. Even a pure tin-coated pan must be treated with care, so that it doesn't crack, corrode or otherwise start leeching tin into the food, and, of course those pans have to be re-tinned every so often or you'll start eating copper.

      Lead and cadmium are also a concern in some very old ceramic and clay cookware (depends on the source). And, I don't know, even though people say it's safe, the fact that it's radioactive enough to set off the Geiger counter I used for my old science fair project makes me quite wary of uranium and vaseline glass. I'd never want to put food or drink in that stuff.

      4 Replies
      1. re: ninrn

        Le Creuset used cadmium in it's red, yellow and orange enamels. They had to reformulate their enamel when new guidelines were issued. They still use cadmium, but they say they are now using a new enamel that encapsulates the cadmium so it can't be released when heated. I don't know if any is released when there's a chip or when the enamel wears down. My old Flame pieces used to turn deep red when heated. Do the current Flame pieces still do that? Maybe you could tell that way.

        I would be wary of earlier, vintage pieces in those colors for that reason.

        1. re: blondelle

          my LeCreuset is a salmon color cant find anything in that color anywhere I still use them

        2. re: ninrn

          Hi, ninrn:

          "...of course those pans have to be re-tinned every so often or you'll start eating copper."

          The "every so often" part varies with individuals' mistakes and abuse, but with proper use, it is measured in decades. And a little extra copper won't hurt much; it's the copper *salts* (think greenish verdegris) that are toxic.


          1. re: kaleokahu

            Thanks, Kaleo. The whole re-tinning thing has put me off old copper pots for a long time, especially as it can cost $100/pot to re-tin. At one store, a lady told me re-tinning should be done at least every three years. But I know your comments are always well-founded, so I'm going to be less wary. I often see copper saute pans in thrift stores and they're so tempting.

            I'd still be careful of the lining of copper pots from some places, though, even modern pieces. I know in my own home country, desperate circumstances make people take all sorts of shortcuts, and lead is cheap. Even if the original manufacturer was solid, if later re-tinning was done in a sketchy place, it could be a problem.

        3. Hi, Mojave:

          To my way of thinking, the biggest risks in vintage cookware are that: (1) you won't find what you want; (2) when you find it, you pass because of price; and (3) you never see the same item again for such a low price.

          I know that was not responsive to your question, but I mean to convey that, with minor exceptions, poisoning yourself by using vintage cookware isn't a big concern. For me, the exceptions would be doubts over lead-based ceramic glazes and pottery and nickel-plated pans.
          Even though it was not formally regulated until much later, lead has been known since Napoleonic times to be bad for health. Reputable manufacturers and retinners who made/worked in living human memory knew better.

          Let me ask: Do you have specific concerns about specific kinds of wares?


          1. I would be wary of artisan made stoneware, which could be used for bakeware. If you don't know that the producer of this particular was careful about lead in the glaze, then it is possible that the glaze could contain lead. I think this would be most problematical using high acid foods. But I imagine someone here will correct my memory, or possibly explain it better.

            1. This is quite a valid concern. Some manufacturing processes were unknown to cause health concerns until much later like you pointed out. Some companies just didn't care but could get away with it.
              Some companies (not all) will get away with as much as they can in order to preserve their bottom line. Radioactive Thorium was not removed from consumer products until 1938. Lead is still widely used commercially. After the clean-air act of the early 70's which banned the use of leaded gasoline, there was a decrease in the lead levels in americans by 80%. 80!! The gas companies were fighting this every step of the way too.
              chlorofluorocarbons or CFC's were also band some time after it was discovered that they were devouring the ozone in the atmosphere, but several companies lobbied washington to drag their feet on the ban since it would cost so much money to use a different chemical. It was finally banned in 1978 since the dupont patent expired in 1979. convenient isn't it? :P
              Both bans were largely thanks to an geologist named Clair Patterson, who also help found ice-core studies. It could be said that he was the most influential geologist of the 20th century, yet who has ever heard of Clair Patterson?

              Sorry, I'm rambling. Unless you have a geiger counter or mass spectrometer at your disposal it would be best to get any vintage cookware examined professionally if it's from a brand with an unknown background.

              3 Replies
              1. re: cannibal

                Hi, cannibal:

                Getting "any vintage cookware examined professionally..." Not going to happen, sorry. All you accomplish here is to scare unthinking people.

                What vintage cookware manufacturing process has been discovered to cause health problems? Do you know of any cookware that contains thorium, lead or CFCs?

                I'm all for being safe, but if you insist on being wary of something, be wary of the *modern* stuff.


                1. re: kaleokahu

                  Instilling fear is the last thing I want to do. I think there is valid concern of manufacturing processes of any cookware, be it modern or vintage. I think it's good that people question any item instead of just assuming it's fit for use because the manufacturer told them it's "safe".

                  I wouldn't suggest getting the cookware professionally examined to most people, but I was replying to the original poster and their concern for possible hazards. I do agree that this route is not ideal for everyone. It is not a common resource but it is definitely accessable. It's not uncommon for a university to have a mass spectrometer, and I have seen first hand they are generally willing to take on "special projects" if you ask nice enough :)

                  Thorium would not seem likely in cookware, CFC's much less, but those were just examples of practices that are less than honest or ideal for humanity's sake. Lead has made it's way into cookware, but still my post was more of an example than a literal correlation.

                  By no means was my post an attack on vintage cookware. Much less is it a scare tactic.

                  1. re: cannibal

                    Hi, cannibal:

                    OK, I'm fine if someone has concerns over how all cookware--modern and vintage--is made. But cautioning people in general not to use cookware unless and until it is professionally tested is just alarmist. The 99.99999% working consumer supposition is going to be that anything modern is safe, and effectively no "testing" of that would be done.

                    I'm sure one could find an instance of poisoned-by-traditional-cookware somewhere (e.g., Polar explorers, etc.), but where are the graveyards, hospitals and clinics full of victims who did not heed the "concerns"? Are they with the mountains of prostheses at Lourdes?

                    By all means, if the fear of lead solder (or its celeb proponent Mark Bittman) is holding anyone back from buying a tinned copper or steel pan, they should have it tested. But IMO if they're losing sleep over *that*, they'll continue to lie awake over something just as inconsequential.

                    Better to caution about all the plastics and their byproducts in the food industry, I think, than cookware.