Originally written December 19, 2016
Updated December 11, 2019
Tamara Rubin is a multi-award-winning independent advocate for consumer goods safety, and a mother of Lead-poisoned children. Her infant and toddler sons were acutely Lead-poisoned in August of 2005. She began conducting independent testing of consumer goods for toxicants in 2009, and was the parent-advocate responsible for finding Lead in the popular fidget spinner toys in 2017. She uses XRF testing (a scientific method used by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission) to test consumer goods for toxicants, including Lead, Cadmium, Mercury, Antimony, and Arsenic. [bio link]
Tamara, what testing methods do you use to test consumer goods for Lead?
There are several different types of Lead testing that can be done (and that I use in my work) – and different instrumentation may be used for different types of testing. Some of these testing methods are things you (the consumer) can do yourself at home; other testing methods require prohibitively expensive equipment – along with training and certification in the use of that equipment – and those methods are not advisable for an untrained user. NOTE: this post is primarily focused on the testing of consumer goods, not the testing of house paint.
In this post I discuss both quantitative and qualitative testing methodologies
Below are the primary methods of quantitative testing for Lead:
- “XRF Testing”: Using an X–Ray Flourescence spectrometry analyzer, results for consumer goods testing are measured in parts per million (ppm). XRF testing – which generates the test results you will find reported on most of the 2,000+ pages of this website – must be done by an individual trained and certified in the proper use of this equipment (click here to see my certificate.) This testing methodology [using the appropriate instrumentation and software] should be able to test down to single-digit parts per million, with a single-digit ppm margin of error (for example 5 +/- 2 ppm) for consumer goods. Unit of measure: Parts Per Million / ppm
- Dust-wipe Sampling: The samples used in this type of testing can be collected either with a DIY kit or by a professional; in either case the [1 sq.ft.] wipe samples are then sent to a lab for analysis. Dust wipe results are measured in micrograms [of Lead] per square foot. An effective “negative” should be “under 5” (usually displayed in most reports as “<5”) micrograms per square foot”. To better understand the concern for specific levels for Lead in dust, click here. Unit of measure: Micrograms Per Square Foot / µg/ft²
- Water Testing: This type of testing can also be done with a DIY kit or by a professional (in either case, using a reliable water collection kit sample that is then sent in to a lab) with results measured in parts per billion. [Note: there are one thousand (1000) ppb in one (1) ppm.] An effective “negative” should be “under one part per billion” and would read on most reports as “<1 ppb”. Unit of measure: Parts Per Billion / ppb
- To learn more about XRF testing used for testing house paint (which is a different conversation entirely – both a different type of instrumentation AND a different unit of measure [Milligrams Per Centimeter Squared / mg/cm2] than what is reported on this blog – click here).
- To learn more about blood lead testing, click here. Blood Lead Level test results are generally (in the United States) measured in Micrograms Per Deciliter / µg/dL . My son’s last test result (as an example) was BLL “0.8”, which can be read as “blood Lead level of zero point 8 micrograms per deciliter.” When he was first acutely poisoned he had a BLL of 16.0. For context, pre-industrial revolution humans had effective BLLs of around 0.016, so a BLL of 16 is roughly one thousand times the amount of Lead found in humans who lived before the Industrial Revolution (1760-1840).
To recap the 5 separate units of measure for quantitatively expressing Lead concentrations:
- in Blood: Micrograms Per Deciliter (µg/dL)
- in Consumer Goods: Parts Per Million (ppm)
- in Water & Food: Parts Per Billion (ppb)
- in Dust: Micrograms per square foot (µg/ft²)
- in Paint: Milligrams per centimeter squared (mg/cm2)
Qualitative Testing, using:
- Reactive agent testing (“positive”/“negative” results) – consumer grade, used at home – (e.g. LeadCheck® swabs) The only brand of test that I recommend or believe in is the LeadCheck® swab brand. Other types of testing may not be as reliable. You can read more about the types of things you might want to test with this methodology at this link.
I personally primarily use two important tools to test consumer goods for Lead (consumer goods testing has been the focus of my work for the past 3+ years):
- a high-precision (quantitative) method used by scientists and regulatory agencies: a Niton XRF instrument OR
- a reactive agent (qualitative) home screening test kit: LeadCheck® swabs.
An XRF Instrument
For quantitative results (Lead, Cadmium, Arsenic, and Antimony readings that are shown as precise, specific measurements in parts per million [ppm]) in many of my posts, I typically use a hand-held Niton X-Ray Fluorescence (“XRF”) spectrometer analyzer.
A high-precision XRF analyzer is a very expensive [typically around $40,000 to $50,000 new for the “fully-loaded” model I use], 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 [very expensive, as well] 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 for detecting Lead, Cadmium, Mercury, Arsenic, Antimony and other metals in consumer goods (and housing / building components; paints and coatings; etc.)
The XRF test results (of consumer goods) that I share on my blog are simply that — the precise, accurate, repeatable numeric readings of concentrations of any of the most common neurotoxic heavy metals, Lead, Cadmium, Mercury, Arsenic, and Antimony) in parts per million (ppm) that may be present in the specific item that I tested (usually with the exact item shown in an accompanying photograph on the blog post).
On rare occasions, I will extrapolate (from a lot of testing I have done on a particular brand) that a particular brand can be expected, or is likely to test very high for Lead, Cadmium, etc.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”.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.
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.
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 definitely NOT safe for children.
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 sorts of 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 has very high Lead content.
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 aLeadCheck® swab:
- original windows* (exterior and interior paint)
- original trim* (baseboards, moldings, etc.)
- original doors*
- original exterior siding*
- 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 furniture
- most cast iron/enamel-coated bath tubs*
* Note: in many cases, original Leaded paint layers in an older home may have been painted-over with non-Leaded paint at some point. In order for a LeadCheck® swab to detect any underlying original Leaded paint, it may be necessary to find an area where the subsequent newer layer(s) of paint is worn away, exposing the original base layer, or to cut a chip out and test the back of it.
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 conversation and please take what you read online (especially posts by companies or agencies with industry ties and influences) with a grain of salt!
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!
Click here for my suggestions on what to do with leaded items discovered in your home as a result of any of this testing.
Additional types of testing for Lead (not for consumer goods) include:
1) 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).
2) Dust wipe sampling
My friends at CertifiedKit.com also offer home (DIY) dust wipe sample kits, where the samples you collect are then sent to a lab for analysis OR you can hire a hazard inspector to do dust wipe samples for you. (More on that in a moment!)
As always, please let me know if you have any other questions!
Thank you for reading and for sharing my posts!
Mother of Lead Poisoned Children
Unexpected Lead Expert