Want lead-free tableware? Use banana leaves.
When Sam was a baby just learning to stand up on her own by holding on to the sides of her crib, we saw her once chewing the painted wood railing of the crib. We knew the dangers of ingesting paint and Speedy wrapped every part of the railing with cloth.
After Sam turned two and Alex was not even a year old, we moved from Speedy’s parents’ house to my parents’ house. My parents’ house had not gone repainting since I was in grade school, some of the old paint was cracked and falling off the walls. Sam noticed Alex, who was at the crawling stage, picking up something from the floor and putting it in her mouth. Cracked paint. I took her off the floor, opened her mouth and cleaned it out. Then, a few months later, I had the entire ground floor wallpapered. Old paint scraped off completely and then wallpapered. Another few months after that, I had the entire second floor wallpapered.
The issue? Lead, of course. Lead in paint. It’s harmful. In young children, it can cause retardation, among other things. In ways that we can keep lead off our children’s reach, we do what we can. But what about lead in glaze used in tableware? That left me stupefied. It still does.
Tableware — whether bone china, porcelain, earthenware or stoneware — are all glazed. Some are even painted with colorful images. Just a few years ago, there was a huge brouhaha about cheap Made In China tableware said to contain dangerous levels of lead. China responded with promises of tighter quality controls and more frequent factory inspections. For those who can afford better quality stuff, some tableware are now made with unleaded glaze. End of problem?
No one used unleaded glaze until after the dangers of lead were discovered. In many cultures, ours included, tableware — especially, expensive porcelain and bone china — are considered heirloom passed from generation to generation, usually from mother to daughter. Unless you were born after 2000, chances are, whatever heirloom tableware you inherited had been made with leaded glaze.
How can we tell if our tableware is safe to use? Do we go by time stamp — if it was manufactured after such and such date, then, it is unlikely to be tainted with lead? Do we go by brand — that some brands are trustworthy enough so we can feel safe?
The truth is, with so many unscrupulous business practices, even if the tableware came with a certification that it is lead-free, we don’t really know. We won’t know unless we can test each and every piece that we have at home — assuming that test kits are available, affordable, easy enough for the average person to use and that they yield reliable results. What happens when we buy new tableware? Do we go to a store carrying a lead test kit and testing each piece that we like before buying? Will stores even allow that?
If you want to be a hundred per cent lead-free at least with your tableware, what is the alternative?
In Southeast Asia, pieces of banana leaves are traditionally used as plates. It is still done especially in rural areas. Just strip the leaves off the spine, tear into pieces as large as a plate, rinse, wip dry and use. After eating, throw them away. They are completely bio-degradable. No need for washing. Imagine the water you save, the detergent you don’t have to use which translates to less toxins you inflict on the environment.
Will I do it? If we have banana trees to ensure us of constant supply of leaves, I would. For now, I’ll go with using banana leaves for our plates two days out of every week. I can buy the stripped leaves cheaply in the market and keep them in the fridge until we need them. They should stay fresh for at least two days.