The Risk of Lead Exposure in Antiques: What You Need to Know

Don't let concerns about lead ruin your love of antiques.

Lauren Thomann is a business owner, antique dealer, and freelance writer/editor with 16 years of experience and a B.A. in English and Linguistics. She specializes in antiques—mainly Victorian through Mid Century—antique jewelry, old house renovations, and lifestyle and home-related content. Click the link to learn more.
vintage painted toy VW bus

Lead exposure can be a serious health concern, especially for young children and pregnant women. So it’s important to be aware of the potential for lead exposure in antiques. Many of us love antiques for their unique charm and character. However, remember that just because something is old doesn’t mean it’s automatically better.

In some cases, older items may contain materials that can harm our health, such as lead-based paint or other toxic substances. That’s why it’s important to take extra precautions when handling some types of antiques. We can do this without letting it ruin our love for these beautiful and interesting items. By being aware of the potential risks and taking the necessary steps to protect ourselves, we can enjoy antiques without putting our health at risk.

General Risk Level

The prevalence of lead in antiques can vary depending on the type of antique and when it was made. Antiques made before 1978 are more likely to contain lead-based paint, as this was a common practice at the time. However, not all painted antiques made before this date will necessarily contain lead. In addition, some types of pottery and crystal glassware may contain lead in the glaze or materials. (But this isn’t always the case.) Overall, the risk of lead exposure from antiques is generally low, but it’s important to be aware of the potential for lead in older items and take the necessary precautions to protect yourself and your loved ones.

Types of Antiques That Might Contain Lead

Some types of antiques may be more likely to contain lead than others. These include:

  • Painted antiques made before 1978, such as old furniture, toys, and household items. These items are more likely to contain lead-based paint. If the paint is peeling or degraded, the risk of exposure increases.
  • Pottery, including ceramics and porcelain. Lead may be used in the glaze of these items, which could pose a risk of exposure if ingested. This risk increases if there are chips or cracks that compromise the integrity of an item.
  • Crystal glassware. Lead is sometimes used to improve the clarity and brightness of crystal glass. Unfortunately, many older crystal pieces do contain lead. To mitigate this risk, it’s best to avoid using crystal glassware that is chipped, cracked, or damaged, as the damaged areas may contain lead.
  • Some antique jewelry. It’s possible for antique jewelry to contain lead, depending on the materials used to make the jewelry and when it was made. Lead was commonly used in the manufacturing of jewelry before it was recognized as a health hazard. Some older jewelry, such as costume jewelry or inexpensive trinkets, may contain lead in the base metal or paint used to color the pieces. If the paint or top coating on a piece of old jewelry has worn off, be wearier of lead exposure.

Tips to Avoid Prolonged Lead Exposure

If you’re unsure whether an antique contains lead, it’s always best to err on the side of caution. Here are some tips for avoiding lead exposure when handling antiques:

  1. Avoid letting children play with antique painted toys. Antique toys that were made before 1978 are more likely to contain lead-based paint, which can be harmful if ingested. It’s best to keep these items out of reach of children, or to properly clean and seal them to prevent lead exposure. If you have antique toys in your home, consider having them tested for lead by a professional to ensure they are safe for your children to play with.
  2. Avoid sanding or scraping painted or metal antiques. This can release lead particles into the air, which can be inhaled or ingested. If you need to clean or repair an antique, use a damp cloth instead.
  3. Wear gloves when handling questionable antiques. This can help prevent your skin from coming into direct contact with lead-based materials.
  4. Consider hiring a professional to test for lead. If you’re concerned about the potential for lead in your antiques, you can hire a professional to test for the presence of lead-based materials. This can give you peace of mind and help you make informed decisions about handling the items. You can also try a home test kit, but these are less accurate.
  5. Avoid eating out of chipped or compromised antique china. If an antique plate or bowl has a chip or crack, the damaged area may contain lead-based paint or other toxic substances. It’s best to avoid using these items for food or drink, as the substances could potentially leach out and be ingested.

Where to Learn More

If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for lead exposure in antiques, contact your local health department or environmental agency.

Taking the necessary precautions to avoid lead exposure when handling antiques is essential. However, that doesn’t mean you need to be hypervigilant. You can enjoy your antiques without worrying excessively if you follow these tips. Remember, the risk of lead exposure from antiques is generally low, so there’s no need to panic. By being aware of the potential risks and taking the appropriate steps to protect yourself, you can continue to enjoy your antiques without letting concerns about lead exposure ruin your enjoyment.

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