#AskTamara: What do you use to test for lead?

#AskTamara

Question:  Tamara, what testing methods do you use to test consumer goods for lead?

Answer: There are many different types of lead testing that can be done and different instrumentation is used for each type of testing. In this post I discuss:

  1. Qualitative (yes/no results) reactive agent lead testing (LeadCheck® swabs)
  2. Quantitative testing using an XRF instrument (“XRF Testing”), with results measured in either parts per million (ppm, generally reserved for consumer goods) OR micrograms per centimeter squared (reserved for paint testing)
  3. Water Testing (using a reliable home test kit that is sent in to a lab), with results measured in parts per billion (ppb). Note: there are one thousand (1000) ppb in one (1) ppm.

I personally primarily use two important tools to test consumer goods for lead: LeadCheck® swabsand a Niton XRF instrument.

LeadCheck® Swabs

3M LeadCheck® swabs are a consumer level test that will (on many types of materials, but not all) give you a positive or negative reading for lead.  It is qualitative (not quantitative) but the low-threshold for the sensitivity of the test is 600 ppm and items are considered toxic for children with surface coatings at 90 ppm lead and higher – so if it DOES test positive with a LeadCheck® swab, it is not safe for children.Ask Tamara: What do you use to test for lead?

LeadCheck® swabs were originally designed to test paint and they are very good at testing paint.  They may also work on some pottery and metal items, however many pottery items and plastic items (and other types of consumer goods) may have unsafe levels of lead yet not test positive with a swab (not because the swabs don’t work, but because they were not designed to test those items.)

LeadCheck® swabs are also a very good tool for testing enamel coated bathtubs!

LeadCheck® swabs are rarely useful in testing kitchen or bathroom tile, even if it is very high lead.

A pack of 8 swabs (pictured here on the right) usually costs between $24 and $30 retail.

Items you can typically test in your home with a LeadCheck® swab:

  • original windows (exterior and interior paint),
  • trim (baseboards),
  • original doors,
  • some (usually slightly raised) painted decorations on mugs, glassware and dishes (but not all), [a fairly consistent example of this is the red and blue writing on older Pyrex glass measuring cups.]
  • some metal items like (vintage or new)  leaded brass knobs on doors and furnitures,
  • most cast iron/enamel coated bath tubs.

Here’s a more extensive posts on things you can
easily test with a LeadCheck® swab.

Also check out this post:
Can I test my dishes for lead with a LeadCheck® Swab?

LeadCheck® swabs are NOT “inaccurate” and do NOT give “false negatives” nor “false positives” when used properly. There are many industry-influenced online articles and posts suggesting that they are an inaccurate testing methodology and give false negatives and positives. This is simply not true. Please realize there are industry lobbyists influencing every aspect of the lead issue and please take what you read online (especially posts by companies or agencies with industry ties and influence) with a grain of salt! [I will be addressing that shortly in another post and will link that here as soon as that post is live.]

Some of the links on this page may be affiliate links where a purchase made
after clicking will support this website without costing you extra!

Niton XRF Instrument

Ask Tamara: What do you use to test for lead?For quantitative results (lead, cadmium and arsenic readings that are shown as specific numbers in parts per million [ppm]) in many of my posts, I typically use a handheld Niton X-Ray Fluorescence (“XRF”) spectrometer. 

An XRF is a very expensive (typically around $40,000 to $50,000 new for the “loaded” model I have used most often in the past), highly accurate scientific portable/ field instrument which the instrument operator needs to be trained and certified to use.

The specific instrument I have used for most of my readings is a non-radioactive source Niton XL3t GOLDD+ XRF Analyzer from ThermoFisher Scientific. This instrument is self-calibrating [and I also manually calibrate it for good measure each time I use it].  This model features optional (expensive) software modules that make it possible to test in many different “modes” — including “soil” mode, “consumer goods” mode, “metals” mode, “paint” mode and “test all” mode. Each of these modes (optional software modules) employs elaborate and distinct mathematical algorithms to interpret the readings and weight them/format them for accuracy and convenience.

XRF testing is the most effective available screening tool for advocacy work in the field detecting for Lead, Cadmium, Mercury, Arsenic and other metals in consumer goods (and housing / building components / paint.)

The XRF test results (of consumer goods) that I share on my blog are simply that — the numeric readings (usually for Lead, Cadmium, Mercury and Arsenic) in parts per million (ppm) of the specific item that I tested (usually with the exact item shown in a photograph on the blog post).

On rare occasions, I will extrapolate (from a lot of testing I have done on one brand) that a particular brand can be expected or is likely to test very high for lead, and should best be avoided (like Franciscan China or vintage Pyrex); however, in most cases I neither state nor imply that an item’s XRF test results mean that “the item will poison you/your children”.Ask Tamara: What do you use to test for lead?I share the quantitative XRF testing results so my readers can use the results to do their own research and make informed choices, helping them to decide (for example) whether to continue to use (or to stop using) a particular item.

In every case when a household item tests positive for lead, there is a safer choice out there  – a safer choice of a functionally similar and equally appropriate item that is, in fact, lead free.

If consumers are given the opportunity to choose items that do not contain neurotoxic lead — even in trace amounts (or items that are at least lead-safe by European and U.S. standards) they will usually make the lead-safe or lead-free choice for their family!

The most strict current federal standard by which an item is considered unsafe for use by children (a standard that really should be applied to all household items, not just children’s items in my opinion) is 90 ppm lead as the threshold for determining lead toxicity in the paint or coating of an item.

Items that test 90 ppm lead or higher in the paint or coating are considered unsafe for use by children. Additionally items that test positive at 100 parts per million lead or higher in the substrate (underlying base material of the item – for example, ceramic or plastic) are considered unsafe for children. These standards were set by the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission in the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act.

As a result of the above standard, in my opinion any consumer good that tests positive at 90 ppm lead or higher should not be considered “lead-safe” (and depending on the item and the intended usage you may want to replace items that test positive for 90 ppm lead and higher).

As consumers I recommend that we look for items that are either below 90 ppm lead or completely negative for any trace of lead, and that we demand of our product manufacturers that they adhere to these reasonable standards that are fundamentally protective of children’s health.

In many of the posts on this website where I share lead test results for consumer goods I use the following scale for my “ratings system”:

  • #Leaded: over 100 ppm range
  • #LeadSafe: under 100 ppm range (when taking in to account the range of the margin of error of the test result as well)
  • #LeadFree: Non-Detect for lead when tested with an XRF instrument. What this means is that the item tested below the threshold of detection of the XRF instrument, which is generally below the range of single digits parts per million.

Please note many items that have lead will test positive for lead using an XRF even if they do not test positive for lead using a LeadCheck Swab, and this is because LeadCheck Swabs have primarily been designed to test for lead in paint (see above) and do not react with lead in all types of consumer goods.

Click here for my suggestions on what to do with leaded items.

Water Testing

For WATER testing for lead, my friends at CertifiedKit.com make a consumer-friendly / do-it-yourself water test kit that I have had good experience with and recommend people try if free testing is not offered in their area. This test kit tests down to five (5) ppb (parts per billion).

Ask Tamara: What do you use to test for lead?

As always, please let me know if you have any other questions!

Thank you for reading and for sharing my posts!

Tamara Rubin
Mother of Lead Poisoned Children
Unexpected Lead Expert


Affiliate link disclosure: If you choose to purchase any items after clicking the Amazon links above, Amazon pays me a small kick back as a thank you for sending business their way. It doesn’t cost you anything extra and helps support this website, allowing me to keep sharing information about childhood lead poisoning prevention (as well as making it possible for me to keep sharing about safe products for your home and family) ... Sharing this information in turn helps families everywhere protect their children from potential environmental toxicity in their homes. I only link to products that are the same as (or very similar to) ones that I either have direct personal experience with in my home or that I have personally tested with an XRF Instrument and found to be lead-safe or lead-free. December 2016

Originally Published: December 19, 2016
Updated: August 22, 2018

4 Responses to #AskTamara: What do you use to test for lead?

  1. Maggie March 22, 2018 at 9:44 am #

    Hello,

    Is it still possible to have a box of items tested for a fee the next time you rent the XRF?

    Thanks!!

    • Tamara March 22, 2018 at 10:45 am #

      Yes! I’m doing a flash sale if you pay today too, only $75 (instead of $150 or $100 if you are on a $25/ month subscription) 🙂

  2. Annie August 20, 2018 at 3:36 pm #

    Hi Tamara! Thank you so much for your advocacy and resources. My husabnd and I have a young baby and we also are planning to do some much needed repairs to our house. The outside trim around our front door is cracking and chipping. It’s white. When we used one of the 3M swabs, the paint itself turns a very light pink, but the swab stays yellow. But, when we hired an xrf professional, it came back negative for lead-at a level of zero. Have you ever had a similar experience? I’m nervous to scrape and sand it but don’t know how else to repair it. A response/advise would be much appreciated!

    • Tamara August 20, 2018 at 6:32 pm #

      If there is any pink there is lead and the inspector didn’t catch it because they are using an instrument with margin of error or detection threshold that is too high. Please read this post – it answers some questions: https://tamararubin.com/2016/02/tomorrow/

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