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Reference Question of the Week – 9/27/09

   October 3rd, 2009 Brian Herzog

brass hookThis is one of those questions that wasn't particularly difficult, or even definitively answered, but I thought it was interesting. The phone rings...

Me: [pause] I'm sorry, could you repeat that?
Patron: I said, is brass toxic? I know they used to make pots out of copper, but I need to know if brass is, you know, safe for, eating, and food.

I wasn't entirely sure how to look that one up, so I took her name and number and said I'll call when I found the answer. I looked up brass in a couple encyclopedias and metal books, but they didn't indicate toxicity one way or the other.

So I started searching the internet for things like "brass toxic" and "brass poisoning" and one bit of information kept being repeated. Wikipedia's article on brass said it best:

To enhance the machinability of brass, lead is often added in concentrations of around 2%. This lead is present on the surface of the material, and thus presents a health concern similar to that of pure lead.

That seemed to answer the question in general, so I called the patron back. I told her about the lead, said she suspected as much, and then revealed more of the story. It turns out, she bought brass hooks to hang her cooking pots from. But she was worried that water from newly-washed pots would drip on the brass, which would then drip onto surfaces or food below.

The packaging the hooks came in said "do not put in mouth," which, she said, she first thought was a message to carpenters who installed the hooks, warning not to hold them in their mouth like they do with nails and screws.

The patron continued with various theories for another few minutes. Eventually, she gave me the brand name of the hooks, and I looked up the phone number she could call the manufacturer. I did, and she hung up saying she was going to call them and ask about their manufacturing process, and see what they thought about her plan to hang pots from their hooks.

I can only imagine.

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