I love vintage barware. I love scanning thrift shop shelves for wobbly-stemmed green martini glasses and cups with little strawberries painted on them. I love the way these things look on my bar cart and the way they feel in my hand. I love that they’re stylish, affordable and eco-friendly. But I definitely would not love to get lead poisoning from them, and unfortunately, some of these homewares might carry that risk.
Before US regulatory measures introduced in the mid-1970s, manufacturers often added lead, and to a lesser extent, the carcinogens cadmium and arsenic, to ceramic glazes, painted barware and crystal glassware, to improve their appearance or durability. As a result, some vintage items contain toxic substances, making them a potential source of lead poisoning.
“Vintage barware can have enough contaminants to cause biological harm to humans,” says Tamara Rubin, an Oregon-based lead-poisoning prevention advocate.
Repeated exposure to lead and cadmium can cause it to accumulate in our bones and kidneys respectively, contributing to a wide range of health outcomes, including reduced bone density, neurological issues, low sperm count, mood disorders, joint pain and heart disease. (Other common sources of lead include house paint manufactured before 1978 and soil, which can be contaminated by leaded fuel.) In the US, an estimated 410,000 people die prematurely from complications associated with lead poisoning each year.
So, what’s a vintage lover to do? Here’s what experts suggest.
Intermittently coming into contact with a small amount of lead might not seem alarming, but the cumulative impacts of even low-level exposures can lead to health issues. “If you can avoid the exposure, why not?” advises Dr Nicholas Newman, a researcher and physician specializing in lead poisoning at Cincinnati Children’s hospital medical center. This caution is especially pertinent for households with children, who are small and put everything in their mouths, or pregnant people, who are especially vulnerable to lead. It’s wise to treat vintage barware that you suspect may contain lead as decorative rather than functional.
Assess your items (or ask an expert to do it for you)
Unfortunately, it’s tricky to determine if an item contains lead without help from a specialized consumer product testing lab – this can be difficult given most focus on testing paint and soil – or pricy professional services. While DIY lead-test swabs can be found at hardware stores, they are not specifically designed for consumer items, leading to potentially unreliable results.
A sophisticated piece of lab-grade equipment known as an X-ray fluorescence spectrometer (or XRF machine) provides far more accurate readings of the elements in a given object. These machines are costly and require training to use, but Rubin employs one to test products for her website, Lead Safe Mama. She’s built an extensive archive of test results on popular vintage items, like floral glassware, milk glass and illustrated mugs, and accepts donated items for testing. In 2019, Rubin posted about discovering one piece of her own inherited vintage barware pieces contained a shocking 90,000 parts per million (ppm) lead and more than 2,000ppm cadmium; for perspective, the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s threshold for lead in surface coatings of consumer products is 90ppm, and the EU limits cadmium presence to 75ppm.
Avoid orange, yellow or red items
As a general guideline, be wary of orange, yellow or red items, as cadmium is frequently used to achieve these pigments. This concern isn’t limited to very old items; cadmium has been found in products ranging from 1970s Garfield glasses to novelty McDonald’s cups from 2010. Not every object in these colors will contain cadmium, but if in doubt about a particular item, consider researching its origins or not using it – put it in a display cabinet or on a shelf instead, where it will pose less of a risk.
Check items for wear
“I can almost guarantee you that if you have a vintage glass with exterior painted decoration that feels three-dimensional, rough or slightly raised from the glass, most likely that is lead paint,” says Rubin. Worn or scratched paint can shed microparticulates of toxins too small to see, which may then hitch a ride into your mouth along with a sip of margarita or a handful of tortilla chips. “There’s more abrasion on the surfaces than you might think,” cautions Newman – especially if you’re running your items through the dishwasher. Err on the side of caution and don’t drink from vintage vessels with raised paint, especially if they’ve seen better days.
Don’t leave liquid in vintage vessels for too long
The risk of lead exposure can increase depending on what you put in a vessel and for how long. Acidic liquid, alcohol and hot liquid can react with lead compounds in paints, glazes and base materials, increasing their solubility and likelihood of leaching. Don’t store whiskey in a leaded crystal decanter long-term (according to Newman, a couple of hours here and there is less risky) or drink coffee from a vintage glazed ceramic mug every morning.
Seek solid hues and press line markings
Rubin suggests seeking out vintage glasses from the 20s through the 40s with a marking called a press line, typically found along the side or handle. This slightly raised seam indicates the glass underwent a molding process that typically didn’t involve the addition of lead. Rubin also notes that in her general experience, unpainted, solid-colored vintage glassware has a lower chance of containing lead than painted or glazed vessels.
Get a blood lead test
Symptoms of lead poisoning can be subtle; if you’re worried you may have been exposed, ask your doctor for a blood lead test. Generally, 5 micrograms of lead per deciliter (about a half-cup) of blood is considered elevated in adults. (There is no safe lead blood level for children). Someone with that level would probably be told to identify the likely source of the lead, then stop using it and get a follow-up panel, says Newman. Test results showing over 40 micrograms of lead per deciliter, especially in a person expressing noticeable symptoms like difficulty with balance or walking, require immediate medical attention.
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