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There’s nothing quite like the thrill of vintage hunting, whether it’s driving around to estate and yard sales, scrolling Facebook Marketplace, or digging through mounds of secondhand goodies at the thrift store. I’m currently planning my 2025 wedding, and my dream is to incorporate vintage blue and white transferware dishes, tons of silver and brass vessels for florals, and candlesticks of every shape and size. On my quest, I’m hitting all my favorite secondhand haunts harder than ever before. But there’s always one thought looming in the back of my mind as I unload my found treasures: What if they contain lead? And what if I inadvertently expose my loved ones to lead in the dishware I’ve collected and brought home?
You’re likely familiar with the presence of lead in house paint, as homes built before 1978 are highly likely to have been painted with lead paint. In fact, the EPA estimates that 87% of homes built before 1940 contain lead paint. But even if you live in a brand-new home with carefully sourced materials, lead in vintage decor and tableware can still pose a threat. Many beloved and sought-after vintage brands — like Pyrex, Lenox, Anchor, Liberty Blue, Spode — have manufactured tableware with lead, and while they’re not all contaminated, it’s worth keeping in mind that you should double check anything made before 2011.
According to the CDC, you can be exposed to lead through ingesting lead paint (either chips or through food or water that’s been contaminated), or breathing in lead dust. Lead poisoning is a particular concern for children under the age of 6, as they’re both more likely to put objects in their mouths, and because lead is easily absorbed in their developing nervous system. The CDC states that “even low levels of lead in blood can cause developmental delays, difficulty learning, behavioral issues, and neurological damage.” As for adults, Mayo Clinic lists high blood pressure, joint and muscle pain, difficulties with memory or concentration, headache, abdominal pain, mood disorders, and fertility issues as possible symptoms and side effects of lead poisoning, but it can often go undetected in adults.
I reached out to Tamara Rubin, activist and founder of the exhaustive lead-safety resource, Lead Safe Mama, for advice on how to avoid coming into contact with lead. The issue is close to Rubin’s heart, as both of her children were poisoned at a young age, and she’s since dedicated her life to keeping families safe from lead, by speaking at universities, leading studies in local communities, and giving presentations to hospitals, winning two awards from the federal government for her advocacy work along the way.
While it can seem daunting to check every vintage item you procure, the only way to be sure you’re not exposing yourself and your loved ones to lead poisoning is by arming yourself with knowledge and avoiding risky pieces.
What types of tableware are most likely to contain lead?
It’s hard to know which items are sure to contain lead, but there are a few things Rubin would advise you to never bring into your home, which includes: leaded crystal, vintage stained glass, vintage Tiffany-style lamps, upcycled vintage windows, vintage cameras, and vintage books. All of these items are highly likely to contain lead and produce lead dust in your home.
Beyond these pieces, be wary of any vintage tableware that’s been painted, stamped with a design, or glazed — this includes daintily-decorated Pyrex cookware, blue and white transferware china, souvenir tumblers, and cocktail glasses with metallic rims. These kinds of tableware don’t always contain lead, but they’re more likely to, according to a 2017 study performed on painted glassware at Plymouth University in the U.K. The study states that “externally decorated glassware used for the consumption of beverages, purchased new or sourced secondhand, including tumblers, beer glasses, shot glasses, wine glasses, and jars” contain “high concentrations of total and extractable lead.”
If you’re wondering if you can still use items that have lead paint on the outside, such as bakeware or glassware, since the painted portion doesn’t come into direct contact with your food, Rubin points out that you’ll inevitably touch and ingest the lead paint through regular use. Ceramics with lead paint beneath the outer glaze aren’t safe for use either, as the glaze will eventually wear away or chip, leaving the lead paint exposed to your food. Bummer, I know.
How can I test my vintage items for lead?
When I initially set out to write this piece, I intended to include a step-by-step guide on testing your items for lead at home, but unfortunately, most home test kits can’t be relied upon for accuracy. After evaluating commercially available lead test kits, the Consumer Products Safety Commission does not recommend these test kits to reliably and accurately detect the presence or absence of lead in consumer products. Most home test kits are designed for testing house paint, Rubin notes, and while there are some reputable ones available for this purpose, most have false negatives and positives, and they can’t properly check for lead on painted dishware, sealed ceramics, or leaded crystal.
The only way to test for 100% accuracy is with X-Ray Fluorescence technology that can determine the elemental composition of materials. The machines resemble radar guns, and can test for the presence of lead beneath layers of house paint or glazes on dishware, without having to compromise the integrity of the piece. The drawback is that these machines are expensive (upwards of $10,000 expensive), so are really only available via professionals.
If you’re concerned about items you already have, or you’re debating a purchase because you’re not sure if it might contain lead, I’d highly recommend you refer to Rubin’s exhaustive index, which she regularly updates through her own testing or when brands make announcements about items that have confirmed lead contamination.
What kinds of tableware are least likely to contain lead?
Knowing what we know now about the presence of lead in a vast array of vintage (and even modern) tableware, it can seem daunting to procure items that don’t contain lead, but Rubin wants to emphasize that it’s not all doom and gloom.
There are still a ton of beautiful, safe options that you can feel confident purchasing and having in your home. Instead of collecting painted dishware or leaded crystal, she suggests looking for vintage silverware, items made from clear or blown glass, as well as vintage fabrics like lace or handmade cotton quilts, art that’s encased in glass, and unpainted wood furniture and decor.
The dangers of lead poisoning, especially when it comes to vintage tableware, are real and present, but it certainly doesn’t mean you have to stop collecting or throw out every valuable piece you own. When I mentioned the sentimental value of vintage heirloom items, Rubin framed it like this: “Ask yourself why you’re holding onto your grandmother’s dishes … would she want you to hold onto something that could make you or your family sick?” The answer is almost always a no, as most of us want to ensure that future generations are not exposed to lead in the same capacity as previous ones. So turn your most-precious items that may contain lead into a shadow box to protect yourself, research every vintage item you bring home, and, when in doubt, reach out to a professional for help.