Whether it’s the demand for an eco-conscious lifestyle or the revival of retro aesthetics that has fueled the trend, savvy shoppers are flocking to flea markets and thrift shops to score their unique finds.
But before you commit to a goblet with gold trim for your next cocktail party, make sure you know what’s in the glass. Because it might contain lead.
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Though occasionally drinking out of lead glasses may not be the end of the world, the FDA warns that having lead-contaminated glasses within children’s reach at home can result in dangerous exposures. This glassware also poses greater danger to pregnant women, the FDA says.
So if you’re regularly scouring estate sales for the perfect martini glass, you might want to take a fresh look at your finds to make sure they’re not posing any harm to you and your family.
Does Vintage Glassware Contain Lead?
Yes. Almost all vintage glassware contains lead, as the old glass manufacturing process used “a high proportion of lead oxide to give it the beautiful prismatic brilliancy and also makes it easier to work with at lower temperatures,” says Paul Adams, ATK’s senior science research editor.
As concerns about lead poisoning grew and its negative impact on brain growth emerged, modern glassware manufacturing switched to nontoxic oxides of other metals, such as zinc and titanium, to approximate a similar effect, Adams adds.
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Is It Safe to Drink Out of Vintage Glassware?
Maybe. Although your vintage glassware is likely to have lead in it, that isn’t necessarily a reason to panic. Dr. Michael Kosnett, associate professor of clinical pharmacology and toxicology at Colorado School of Public Health, suggests that the level of risk a person faces from exposure to lead from using glassware or utensils depends on how often they use it and what they put in it. “In terms of lead crystal, it takes a certain amount of time for the lead to leach out of the crystal,” he says. “If someone is using lead crystal glass for drinking wine once, that’s not going to give a significant amount of lead.”
The best practice when approaching vintage glassware is to steer clear from using it on a daily basis, and don’t store things in it for a long period of time, Dr. Kosnett recommends. “There are people who store certain Scotch or other alcoholic beverages (such as port wine) in a lead crystal decanter,” he says. “If they keep them for a long period of time, the lead can leach out in higher quantities."
And to stay on the safe side you definitely shouldn’t be letting your kids sip their morning orange juice out of dubious glassware.
What about Vintage Green Glassware?
One of the most popular thrifting scores these days is vintage green glassware. Similar to lead glass manufacturing, colored glassware also used heavy metals—instead of making it shinier, the metals helped add colors to the glass. In the case of green glassware, uranium oxide (a radioactive material) was used to make it look green, according to Adams. So the caution above still stands: It’s not safe to drink out of glasses made out of heavy metals and radioactive materials. But it's not just the oh-so-popular vintage green glassware you should be wary of: other heavy metal materials can be used to make colored glasses, such as cadmium for red glasses.
How to Test for Lead in Glassware
Here’s how to see if your favorite martini glass is safe to drink out of, so that you can sip your cocktail in peace. Remember that using just one of these suggestions isn’t 100% foolproof, but combining a few of them gives you a better sense of the lead quantity.
LOOK FOR A RAINBOW. Adams suggests that looking at the appearance of the glass can raise the first fairly recognizable red flag. “Since lead was introduced to make [glass] look prismatic, the leaded one will likely look more rainbowy than the unleaded one if you shine white light through it," he says. "[This is] because it splits the light into separate wavelengths more than plain glass." Because other less-harmful additives (such as zinc oxide and potassium oxide) can also create that effect, this is just one of a few precautionary measures you should take.
LISTEN FOR A RINGING SOUND. Gently tap the glass with a knife or fork and pay attention to the sound. If it makes a relatively high-pitched ringing sound, it’s probably lead glass. Lead-free glass should make a lower, clinking sound.
USE A TESTING KIT. Lead testing kits are widely available online and at your local hardware stores. However, these are typically recommended for testing surfaces that contain lead (such as glazes or paint) and may not be sensitive enough to test for lead in glass.
MEASURE THE DENSITY OF THE GLASS. For the most definitive way to determine whether your glassware contains lead or not, Adams recommends weighing it. “Lead oxide is much heavier than the alternative chemicals used in glassmaking,” he says. Here’s how to do it:
- Weigh the glass (in grams).
- Sink the glass in a beaker full of water and measure how much water is displaced, to get the volume of the glass (in milliliters).
- Divide the weight by the volume to get the density. Roughly speaking, if it's more than around 3 g/ml, it likely contains lead.
Photo credit: Massimo Ravera via Getty Images