Even though lead paint has been illegal in the U.S. since 1978, many products created before that time are covered with it. You can find them in antique shops, flea markets, garage sales and military surplus stores. Moreover, many products manufactured before 1978 contain lead in other ways, and it’s not at all obvious which ones do.
Lead poisoning is an ongoing hazard in the United States. Both adults and children can be poisoned by it, although the impact on children can be more severe and long-term. Initial symptoms of lead exposure include fatigue, abdominal pain and constipation, along with headaches. The amount of lead need not be very high for health problems to occur.
Antique dishes, furniture and toys may contain dangerous amounts of lead
It’s impossible to regulate sales of lead-tainted items on the secondary market, but they’re quite common. In 2010, university researchers bought 28 items in antique stores in Virginia, Oregon and New York. Of those, 19 violated the 1978 federal standard for lead paint.
In that study, the most toxic item was a salt shaker lid. It contained 714 times the legal limit for lead paint. Vintage dishes are especially likely to contain lead and can produce lead dust as they break down from heat and light exposure. Vintage dishware may be a pretty curiosity, but you should not use it for serving or eating.
Lead dust is particularly dangerous to children.
“Children are naturally curious. … They touch lots of things, then they put their hands in their mouth,” one professor who studies healthy homes told NPR.
New York’s state health department has warned consumers to avoid using traditional ceramic ware purchased from sources where it’s not clear how the product was made. State health departments in Iowa, Missouri, Kansas and Nebraska have issued warnings about lead dangers in older ceramics, furniture and toys.
Vintage items that commonly contain lead include:
The professor who studies healthy homes put it bluntly: “Don’t purchase vintage toys for your children to play with.”
Similarly, make sure your child’s nursery, daycare, or preschool have policies in place prohibiting “older” toys from being brought onto the premises where children might play with them or chew on them.
Lead is still being used in some discount products today
According to the Campaign for Healthier Solutions, a nonprofit that aims to reduce toxic exposure, dollar stores and other discount retailers sell lead-tainted items relatively routinely. Over the years, it has found lead in new items including tablecloths, toys and jewelry sold at these stores.
The campaign’s most recent study this year found that 53% of items purchased at dollar and discount stores in the Midwest contained lead.
And that’s actually an improvement. In 2015, 81% of the items the campaign tested contained lead.
The 2022 study identified lead in solder used in toys and headphones targeted to children.
So far this year, the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission has recalled six children’s products for exceeding current lead standards. Those items included:
- A children’s desk and chairs
- A plush promotional duck
- An advent calendar
- A wooden stackable toy
- A children’s wooden wagon
- Sweaters with lead-paint zipper pulls
As you can see, it is hard to guess what products might contain lead. To decrease your risk, consider avoiding buying household and children’s products from discount retailers.
Unfortunately, government regulators cannot completely protect the public from toxic substances like lead. That’s why individuals, consumers, parents, and child care providers need to be diligent in guarding against sources of lead exposure. Reasonable efforts to take precautions can go a long way toward preventing exposure in the first place and avoiding the serious consequences it may cause.