You don’t need to remember much from your high school science lessons to know that lead really isn’t something you should be putting in your mouth. It is poisonous and, if ingested in large enough quantities, potentially fatal. So, it surprises a lot of people that some glass has lead in it. This is something you want to avoid, so how can you tell if glass is lead-free?
Most modern glass should be lead-free. To be 100% sure, you can purchase lead testing kits. These can be a bit costly, though. The alternative is to tap the glass with a metal object. You have a lead-free glass if you hear a loud, short clink. If the tap has a more pronounced ring that almost sounds like it is ‘vibrating’ the glass, it may contain lead.
Our goal is to tell you more about lead and why it can be found in some glass. We’ll even give you more advice on how to avoid it. Along the way, we’ll give you some handy information on cadmium too, which is just as dangerous to ingest as lead.
Lead is a heavy metal. It is a naturally occurring element that is found almost everywhere, albeit in very small quantities.
While lead does have some uses, it is very toxic. Repeated exposure to lead can cause lead poisoning, which can result in all sorts of long-term damage to the body. In fact, if a pregnant woman is suffering from excess lead exposure, it can harm the baby. A few decades ago, birth defects were rife due to increased lead exposure, mostly through fossil fuel burning.
As you can probably imagine, you want to avoid lead as much as possible. This means only using lead-free glass.
Lead in Glasses
A few decades ago, health & safety was nothing more than a pipedream. Well, at least it seemed like it. Businesses had to abide by very few regulations, and there weren’t any major studies into the effects of lead on the body. So, lead was used in the production of glass. Nobody knew any better.
Now, don’t get us wrong – they weren’t using lead for the fun of it. It was beneficial to use lead during the manufacturing process.
Using lead made glass production cheaper. It even made it easier to shape the glass into more intricate designs. At the time, glass manufactured using lead even looked less flawed. People also enjoyed the ‘heavy’ feeling of lead-based glass, and the fact that they were less prone to breakage also helped.
While there are clear benefits to using lead in glass, it isn’t something that should be used. We’ll discuss it more shortly, but exposure to lead can lead to lead poisoning. So, when the EPA and OSHA decided that lead exposure should be reduced, companies (mostly) stopped using it in glass production. Nowadays, you’re unlikely to find lead-based glass in the US. Well, at least outside of antique glass which was made back when lead was used heavily in all sorts of manufacturing processes.
Why is Lead in Glass a Bad Thing?
You’ve likely heard horror stories of how bad lead is. We’ve spoken to more than a few people who’ve been told that ingesting lead can lead to serious lead poisoning. Which, to be fair, it can. However, lead isn’t quite the dangerous beast many people believe it to be. Well, at least not in glass. Drinking from a glass manufactured from lead won’t instantly give you lead poisoning, nor will it cause long-term damage. It should still be avoided, though.
Yes. Lead is bad. Really bad. However, lead is everywhere. You’re consuming lead daily (there are trace amounts in water). If you live in a large town or city, the vehicles driving around are pumping copious amounts of lead into the air. The foods that you eat may even have a trace amount of lead in them. Older home? You probably even have lead paint on the walls.
Lead in small quantities is fine. It can be bad, but not so bad that it will have a major effect on somebody. The problem is that lead slowly builds up in the body. Over time, this causes lead poisoning. Lead poisoning can lead to brain damage, memory loss, nerve damage, and more.
So, lead in glass isn’t necessarily bad, if that is the only exposure to lead that you’re getting. The lead issue stems from the fact that all your exposure to lead will very quickly add up. So, you’ll want to reduce your exposure as much as possible. Since lead isn’t really needed in glass, why even bother going for lead glass? Just opt for lead-free glass, like most glass available on the market right now, and your health will benefit.
Is It Safe to Use a Glass Containing Lead?
It depends. Mostly, no.
When a manufacturer uses lead in the production of their glass, the lead should be locked away inside the glass. Touching that glass wouldn’t necessarily expose a person to lead. Well, that’s the way it should work. It rarely does.
The problem is that over time, the glass will start to break down a little. Small chips and scratches may appear. More acidic liquids in the glass will cause the lead to start seeping out. When this happens, using that glass will expose a person to lead.
That’s not to say that it is 100% unsafe to use a glass manufactured using lead, it should just be avoided wherever possible. This is because it can be almost impossible to prevent that glass from eventually leaking lead, especially when the glass gets much older. This is why most people avoid antique glassware for anything other than display purposes since antique glassware will almost certainly have been made using those old-style techniques.
Is Lead-Free Glass Safe?
Yes! Lead-free glass is safe to drink from (or even eat from if you’re buying glass kitchen equipment). Lead-free glass is one of the safer materials for food-based uses. This is because:
Of course, lead-free glass isn’t quite as strong as lead-based glass, and some people believe it doesn’t quite have the same ‘shine’ as traditional lead-based glass. However, there are some quality glassware manufacturers out there, and if you choose their products, you won’t notice the difference between lead-based and lead-free glass. Their products just look that good.
Remember – if you’re going to purchase lead-free glass for use with food or drink, always make sure that whatever you purchase is food-safe. This means opting for one of these types of glass:
There are a few other types of lead-free glass options out there, but these types of glass tend to be the most common.
How Can You Tell if a Glass is Lead-Free?
Almost all modern glassware (from the 1980s onward) sold in the US should be lead-free. There are some imported products that contain lead, but they are rarer. Most reputable companies wouldn’t stock them. Most of the time, the only time you’ll encounter lead-based glassware in the US will be antique crystal. That’s if you’re steering clear of cheaper glass. Still, it is worth knowing how you can tell whether the glass is lead-free, and you have multiple options here:
Remember – if you do have a glass with lead in it, don’t drink from it at all. It should be used for decorative purposes only!
While people are mostly concerned about lead in glass, cadmium is just as bad. Cadmium is toxic, just like lead. It is also found in a multitude of different places, including consumer electronics, batteries, paints, and more. As with lead, a little exposure to cadmium is fine. Your body has no issues removing cadmium in small quantities. However, your body can only do so much, and long-term exposure to cadmium can cause all sorts of issues.
Cadmium in Glass
Cadmium is used in much the same way as lead in glass manufacturing. It makes glassware cheaper and easier to produce. Cadmium can also be used to help give the glass a bit of color.
Some studies have shown that a lot of cheaper glassware products have trace elements of cadmium in them. Perhaps not enough to harm you if the glass was your only exposure to cadmium, but enough to cause long-term issues when you factor in all of the other cadmium the average person is exposed to throughout the day.
Is Cadmium Glass Safe?
Just like lead glassware, cadmium glassware isn’t generally considered to be safe.
Cadmium glassware will, eventually, release cadmium onto the glass. When this comes into contact with the mouth, it’ll be ingested. This causes cadmium to build up in the body, causing serious long-term effects, including mental health issues, increased risk of some forms of cancer, and more.
It is often much easier to expose yourself to cadmium on glassware than it is to expose yourself to lead too. This is because many painted glassware, particularly on the cheaper end of the scale, will use cadmium pigments in the paints. When the paint starts to chip, small flakes of cadmium will break off. This can lead to ingestion.
So, basically – avoid any glassware that contains cadmium. It isn’t good!
How Can You Tell if a Glass is Cadmium Free?
Honestly, the easiest way to test whether a glass is cadmium-free is to use the same tests we detailed for lead. This is because, very rarely, will a glass containing cadmium contain no lead whatsoever. Both the elements had severe restrictions applied to them at much the same time. Although, that’s not to say that cadmium hasn’t been found on more recent products. As recently as 2010, McDonald’s had to recall some of their issued glassware as it was found to contain cadmium, even if no lead was present.
When cadmium is used in glassware, it is used to pigment the glass. Sometimes, this may mean that the glassware has been painted using cadmium-based paints. However, older glass may have had the color changed when cadmium pigments were added to the glass manufacturing process. If the glassware has any of these colors, you may want to avoid using it (unless the glassware is labeled as cadmium-free or food-safe):
Other than this, the only other way to test for cadmium is to purchase a testing kit. This can be expensive, so it is probably just best to avoid older glassware, cheaper glassware, and products not explicitly marked as being food-safe.
Lead and cadmium are highly toxic elements that, when exposed to, can have serious long-term consequences. As a result, many people are surprised to learn that some glass products have been manufactured using lead or cadmium (sometimes both). Drinking out of them regularly can cause toxicity, which can make a person seriously ill. Therefore, it is important to opt for lead-free and cadmium-free glass.
When you are buying glass, always look for lead-free and cadmium-free products. This means avoiding cheaper glass, or products that have been imported from countries known for more relaxed regulations (e.g. China). Yes. You’ll spend a bit more cash, but you’ll end up with something that isn’t dangerous to drink from. It’ll look better too!