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


Ask Tamara

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

Answer: I use two important tools to test consumer goods for lead; LeadCheck swabs and 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 lleadcheckead and higher – so if it DOES test positive with a LeadCheck swab, it is 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 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.

LeadCheck swabs are NOT inaccurate and do NOT give false negatives nor false positives if used properly. There are many industry influenced online articles and posts indicating 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

cq5dam-thumbnail-250-250For 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 that 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 also has software packages that make it possible to test in many different “modes” including “soil” mode, “consumer goods” mode, “metals” mode, “paint” mode and “test all” mode.

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, arsenic and mercury)  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 is likely to test very high for lead and should be avoided (like Franciscan China or vintage Pyrex), however in most cases I do not state nor imply that an item’s XRF test results mean the item will poison you or 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.

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, set by the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission. Anything 90 ppm lead or higher should not be considered 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.

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.)

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

Water Testing

For WATER testing for lead, my sponsor makes 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.

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

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


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

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


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


    • 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) 🙂

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