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A few months ago I happened upon this question, dealing with the safety of using hot tap water for food preparation. Since this primary goal of this site is food preparation and this is a common method, I can definitely see why the general question is on-topic.

However, when I read the accepted answer and other answers, I noted the discussion of bacteria concerns, but no mention of the advice often given by official government organizations -- which is to avoid using hot tap water because of possible lead concerns (especially in very old buildings, but even in newer ones). I myself was somewhat surprised to see the number of warnings about this, but given our general advice here to cite official government organization guidelines for food preparation, I felt like I needed to address what they said.

Anyhow, I hesitated to even write up the answer to that question, because I didn't know whether giving advice to avoid lead poisoning would be on-topic here. I've poked around Meta a bit looking for questions related to this, and it seems like the closest advice I could find was that things dealing with acute medical problems caused by food safety (usually bacteria, but also toxins related directly to bacteria in contaminated food, or perhaps mold, etc.) were on-topic. Essentially, if it could send you to the hospital relatively soon due to food handling, it was on-topic. If the consequences were more likely long-term, it was a "nutrition" question and thus off-topic.

In general, this distinction seems reasonable.

But I'm still not sure how it deals with the question I linked above. Things like lead or mercury poisoning are of course real, but in some cases exposure levels may be influenced by food preparation vessels, techniques, etc. We allow various cookware questions, and if cookware (or food storage containers or whatever) would pose a threat due to harboring bacteria, I assume that would be on-topic. But would a question like "Is it safe to use this pot with some lead in X (paint, glaze, coating, metal alloy)?" be on-topic?

Similar issues came up in some other recent questions, such as here and here. The latter asks about "purifying" water (which brings up issues not only about bacteria or parasites but other dangerous dissolved compounds that could be contained in untreated water); the former involves potential long-term exposure of cookware materials at high temperature to water that may gradually concentrate any dissolved elements, including inorganic toxins.

Obviously we don't want to open the door to medical questions or questions about nutrition. On the other hand, when someone asks "Is this food preparation technique safe?" and we only address the bacteriological side of food poisoning when there is a threat of something like poisoning from other compounds, we arguably do more harm than good if we just answer by saying, "Yeah, the bacteria will be killed if you follow FDA/USDA guidelines."

So, I guess this boils down to a few related questions:

(1) Is the rough guideline I referenced above (which I can't seem to find right now in Meta), an accurate assessment of our general policy -- i.e., food "poisoning" causing acute medical problems from errors in handling or contamination is on-topic, while chronic "poisoning" is generally off-topic?

(2) Are food or cooking-related questions that involve recognized high-risk toxins (e.g., lead, mercury) ever on-topic, even if they may require chronic exposure to create risk rather than our typical bacteria/mold/etc. acute food safety questions? (By "recognized high-risk toxins" I mean things that organizations like the FDA, CDC, EPA, etc. might have long-established official warnings to the public about, rather than questionable chemicals and additives which may or may not be "safe" and are more properly the domain of nutrition/medical advice.)

(3) If a question asks about food "safety" where a risk of such toxin exposure (as in (2) above) is important to consider, are answers that address such risks on-topic? (E.g., "Is it safe to cook in X vessel/container using method Y?")

  • I don't want to go digging right now, but I feel like we've had plenty of things in this general area without problems, and the rule of thumb might be more "does the government make safety (not health/nutrition!) recommendations on this topic?" – Cascabel Feb 10 '15 at 19:08
  • Lead in water is a massive problem in some areas, and the 'test' is suposed to be done after running the water for a minute. (there were complaints by the water utility that people were running the tests incorrectly, and that was the reason for so many failing tests ... of course, using the proscribed methods 1/2 the homes still failed the test) – Joe Feb 13 '15 at 13:48
  • Oh ... and I was one of your 3 upvotes on your answer. Maybe we need a specific question of 'why is it a bad idea to use hot tap water?' so that the more dismissive answers won't be accepted. (I used to keep my hot water heater in the 'econo' mode at 120°F to prevent scalding issues, but I switched it back when I found out about the legionaires issue) – Joe Feb 13 '15 at 13:54
  • @Jefromi - Thanks. Before I wrote this, I did skim through quite a bit of meta discussion trying to find the line between "safety" and "health" defined (they are often not characterized in such categories on government websites), which is what this question is about. One suggestion I remember seeing (I think by Aaronut some years ago) said that one distinction was that "food safety" generally dealt with acute consequences (e.g., could send you sick to the hospital soon), but "health/nutrition" deals with longer term consequences. If there is a clear guideline on this point, I'd be interested. – Athanasius Mar 3 '15 at 18:16
  • @Athanasius Yeah, I don't know. Seems like this should definitely be on topic, though, so either we just let it be and hope the world doesn't end, or we try and make clear guidelines that allow it (along with acute things)? – Cascabel Mar 3 '15 at 19:38
  • Is avoiding contaminating food with eg mercury not basically a hygiene question? – rackandboneman Sep 21 '16 at 15:20

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