Mis-lead by Crystal?

Minimizing health risks of those gorgeous glasses

By Karl Klooster

Warnings of the dangers from over-exposure to one carcinogen or another seem to be everywhere lately.

Don’t smoke. Don’t drink. Don’t overeat. Avoid consuming too much salt, sugar, transfats, saturated fats, carbohydrates and diet beverages. Watch out for food allergies, intolerances and sensitivities — the most common of which are from peanuts, wheat, milk, and eggs — not to mention how diabetes or gout might be lurking in your future.

Here’s one of my favorites: Don’t stand for an extended period of time on street corners adjacent to routes frequently traveled by diesel-powered vehicles. And, if by some stroke of bad luck you get stuck behind a diesel-spewing truck or bus on the highway, pass it as soon as possible.

Of course, the caveat would be do not drive recklessly in the process, which might lead to your sudden and quite unpleasant demise thereby instantly obliterating any gains made from all those diligent disease prevention and health promotion efforts.

So what does this subject have to do with wine? The heavy metal, lead, can be toxic. And wine is often served, even stored, in glass vessels that contain a significant amount of lead.

Reports from HHS, EPA and CDC maintain that too much lead in our systems has the potential to cause serious, if not fatal, conditions. There is even a National Lead Poisoning Prevention Week each October.

Klooster's Clusters

Karl Klooster is the associate editor of the Oregon Wine Press and writes a wine column for the News-Register in McMinnville. He became professionally involved with wine in 1972.

Still, lead has certain inimitable attributes. It is incomparable for making glass gleam. In oxide form, it provides a much higher index of light refraction than ordinary, unglorified glass, thus lending a special shine to any wine.

Lead crystal is also stronger, thus it can be made thinner, more delicate and elegant in appearance. When tapped with a metal object such as a spoon or other item of cutlery, it emits a pleasingly sonorous and lingering ring in comparison to the abrupt and tinny clink of the amorphous, non-crystalline, silica-based stuff produced for daily use.

Leaded glass has been around for centuries. Historians trace its origins as far back as ancient Mesopotamia. But, in 1674, an Englishman named George Ravenscroft combined lead oxide and pure silica, i.e. quartz, on a commercial scale with brilliant results, thus earning himself the enduring honorific “creator of leaded crystal.”

From that time forward, European glassmakers, in particular, have crafted stunningly beautiful stemware, goblets and decanters, as well as other elegant objets d’art, using leaded crystal glass.

In fact, some fine wine appreciators wouldn’t think of taking a sniff, sip or swallow from anything other than glasses bearing such renowned names as Riedel, Baccarat, Orrefors, Steuben, Lalique or Waterford.

Whereas wine can be safely enjoyed and appreciated from a leaded crystal glass or other related drinking vessel, it should not be stored in such a vessel. Tests have proven that the lead in leaded glass, which can comprise up to one-third the total content, will leach into an acidic liquid fairly rapidly.

One research team used Port wine in leaded crystal decanters to measure the amount of lead that migrated into the wine over various periods of time. After only two days, the lead levels were 89 micrograms per liter. After four months, levels soared to as much as 5,000 micrograms.

For long-term comparison, Brandy stored in crystal over a five-year period reached levels of up to 20,000 micrograms. The EPA’s recommended lead level in drinking water is no more than 50 micrograms per liter.

Health Canada, the federal agency helping our northern neighbors improve their personal well-being, has recommended the following procedures to significantly reduce the potential for lead exposure:

• Use crystalware only when serving. Store unused wine or other beverage in lead-free containers.

• Soak new crystal ware in vinegar for 24 hours and rinse thoroughly before use. Hand-wash using mild detergent. Please Note: Dishwasher detergents can damage the surface of the crystalware, causing additional lead to be leached when next used.

• Eat a balanced diet. Good nutrition helps reduce the amount of lead absorbed by the body. If concerned about possible exposure, ask your physician to run a blood panel for heavy metals.

None of this is to say that you should abandon setting an elegant table complete with lovely leaded crystal glasses. During even a long, leisurely meal, no liquid, be it wine, water or other beverages, remains in the glass long enough to leach enough lead to exceed EPA standards.

Be that as it may, on the latest legal front, the California state legislature has deemed it necessary to “protect” the residents within its boundaries from the looming threat of lead poisoning.

The Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, better known as Proposition 65, has been dragged out of the drawer and used to require retailers, mail-order marketers, restaurants, wineries and distributors to disseminate ‘Warnings for Lead Crystal Products Sold in California.”

In other words, every business has to prominently post a sign that says “PROP 65 WARNING. Consuming foods or beverages that have been kept or served in leaded crystal products or handling products made of leaded crystal will expose you to lead — a chemical known to the State of California to cause birth defects or other reproductive harm.”

Now, there is no argument that lead, mercury and cadmium, as well as a dozen or so other heavy metals, possess the potential to inflict health problems on humans. However, in the case of lead, the threat can be slashed essentially to zero by following only the few basic practices that cause very little if any extra inconvenience.

So, go ahead, enjoy a glass of glorious Pinot Noir from the Willamette Valley in the broad-shouldered, chimney shaped, leaded crystal glass designed especially for Oregon’s signature wine by Austria’s famed Riedel Wine Glass Company.

It may turn out to be a tiny bit intoxicating, but light-years away from being toxic.


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