Originally written on December 19, 2016
Updated, December 11, 2019
For those new to this website:
Tamara Rubin is a multiple-federal-award-winning independent advocate for childhood Lead poisoning prevention and consumer goods safety, and a documentary filmmaker. She is also a mother of Lead-poisoned children (two of her sons were acutely Lead-poisoned in 2005). Since 2009, Tamara has been using XRF technology (a scientific method used by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission) to test consumer goods for toxicants (specifically heavy metals — including Lead, Cadmium, Mercury, Antimony, and Arsenic). All test results reported on this website are science-based, accurate, and replicable. Items are tested multiple times to confirm the test results for each component tested. Tamara’s work was featured in Consumer Reports Magazine in February of 2023 (March 2023 print edition).
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 (which I use in my work) — and different instrumentation may be used for different types of testing, too. 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. Those methods are not advisable for an untrained user. NOTE: This article is primarily focused on the testing of consumer goods, not the testing of house paint.
In this article, I discuss both quantitative and qualitative testing methodologies.
Below are the primary methods of quantitative testing for Lead:
- “XRF Testing”: Using an X–Ray Fluorescence 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 3,500+ 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 measurement: 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 one 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 of 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 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 using milligrams per centimeter squared (mg/cm2) than what is reported on this website — 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 1,000 times the amount of Lead found in humans who lived before the Industrial Revolution (1760-1840).
To recap the five 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 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 such as a Niton XRF instrument
- OR a reactive agent (qualitative) home screening test kit: LeadCheck® swabs
#1) XRF Instrumentation
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 articles, I typically use a hand-held Niton X-Ray Fluorescence (“XRF”) spectrometer.
A high-precision XRF Instrument 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 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, though 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 then weight them/format them for accuracy and convenience.
XRF testing is the most effective available screening tool for advocacy work in the field when it comes to detecting Lead, Cadmium, Mercury, Arsenic, Antimony, and other metals in consumer goods. (As well as housing/building components like paints and coatings, etc.)
The XRF test results (for consumer goods) that I share on this website are simply that — the precise, accurate, repeatable numeric readings of concentrations of any of the most common neurotoxic heavy metals such as Lead, Cadmium, Mercury, Arsenic, and Antimony in parts per million (ppm) that may be present in the specific item tested (usually with the exact item shown in an accompanying photograph in the article).
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 “the item will poison you/your children.”I share the quantitative XRF testing results so Lead Safe Mama readers can use the results to do their own research and make informed choices, helping them to decide (for example) whether to continue using (or stop using) a particular item.
The theory behind this work is that 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 (CPSC) in the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008.
As a result of the above standards, any consumer good that tests positive at 90 ppm Lead or higher should not be considered “Lead-safe.” 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 we look for items either below 90 ppm Lead or completely negative for any trace of Lead, and that we demand our product manufacturers adhere to these reasonable, universally agreed upon standards designed to be fundamentally protective of children’s health.
In many of the pieces on this website where we share Lead test results for consumer goods, we use the following scale for my “rating system”:
- #Leaded: over 100 ppm range
- #LeadSafe: under 100 ppm range (when taking into account the range of the margin of error for the test results 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-digit parts per million.
Please note: many items that have Lead will test positive for Lead using an XRF Instrument 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.
#2) 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 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 when testing kitchen or bathroom tiles, even if it has very high Lead content.
A pack of eight 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)
- 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 bathtubs*
* 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 piece:
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. Please take what you read online (especially articles 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:
#3) 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 experiences with and recommend people try if free testing is not offered in their area. This test kit tests down to one (1) ppb (parts per billion).
#4) 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. You can also purchase dust wipe sampling kits from Amazon. Here’s a link to a kit I have used at home and in my work with families: https://amzn.to/37oJpCf.
As always, please let me know if you have any other questions, I will do my best to answer them personally as soon as I have a moment. Thank you for reading and for sharing articles from this website!
Owner — Lead Safe Mama, LLC