Crystal (expensive glassware—champagne flutes, pitchers, decanters—as well as decorative items and beads) can have very high levels of lead. In some cases we have seen as much as 400,000 parts per million (40%) lead or higher – but typically in the 200,000 to 300,000 range. [ To appreciate this in perspective, the hazard level for lead in an item intended for a child is 90 parts per million lead, meaning anything over 90 ppm (or 100 ppm – depending on the testing method and component tested) may be considered toxic.]
Lead was added to give crystal items shine/sparkle, weight (to make them seem more valuable – like true gemstones) and to make them more easily etched (with designs and faceted surfaces.)
Leaded crystal vessels have been studied and clearly shown to leach lead (and at quite hazardous levels) into the beverages that they hold. It is my understanding that the more acidic the beverage (and even liquids like milk and water can have some acidity) the more lead can leach from the vessel into the beverages. Alcoholic beverages (for instance, wine and champagne) are especially effective at leaching lead from the vessel that holds them.
I know of at least one case where a mother bought her baby a “vintage” Waterford Crystal baby bottle (made and sold in the 1980s) to give her baby her daily milk out of. The mama wanted her little princess to feel special (along the lines of being “born with a silver spoon in your mouth”.) The baby was found to be poisoned—solely from the lead that had leached into her milk and juice from that baby bottle!
The practice of storing your alcohol (whisky, rum, vodka, etc.) in your “fine” leaded decanters is especially troubling as the amount of lead leached from the containers increases with time.
To note: most crystal will NOT test positive with a lead-check swab (as these are intended for testing painted surfaces), even if it contains hazardous amounts of lead that can leach into a beverage. Do not rely on the swab-testing method for crystal [a special XRF instrument is required for accurately testing such objects].
Leaded crystal beads similarly may not test positive with a swab test, but can contain very high levels of lead [depending on how they are manufactured, in some cases, these may test positive—as evidenced by the mama’s quote on the bottom of this page; she recently tested a bracelet and it tested positive with a swab!] It is also unclear to what degree these might leach lead if ingested—although some studies have been done. However, since all crystal is not made equal (variations resulting in the lead being more bio-available in some than in others), why take the risk when your children’s health and well-being is at stake.
It’s also troubling to me that the jewelry industry seems to have sidestepped the regulation on crystal beads – and is generally marking crystal necklaces and other pieces (that are specifically and obviously targeted for sale to little girls) as “not intended for children under 13″ or “not intended for children under 16.” By including this label they are evading the requirement to label the item as potentially toxic to a child, but the colors and design of the item are appealing to a mother (or granny or aunt or father or uncle) who might be buying the item for a 4, 5 or 6 year old girl, and who is to say that the child won’t end up putting the end of the necklace in her mouth (as so many little girls often do!)?
Get rid of it! There is no reason to potentially poison a child—or yourself—in the name of style and luxury! Rather than leaded crystal, buy non-leaded, (clear) glass decanters and drinking glasses [some colored glass also contains lead in the colorant]—they are generally non-toxic and also cheaper! They also now have “un-leaded crystal” jewelry —although these “gems” don’t have the same weight and feel of the standard crystal beads. Instead, I recommend investing in real silver jewelry for the young girls in your life – with real gems (like amethyst and garnet); they are pretty and actually still reasonably affordable! Why go with a “adulterated”/industrially-created product when the more traditional, more simply natural hand-crafted forms are safer and prettier (I don’t know any little girl who wouldn’t be more excited to have a REAL silver necklace with a REAL amethyst over a crystal necklace any day… for about the same price too!)