Question: “Do Starbucks mugs have high levels of lead in them? What are the safest options for non-toxic coffee mugs?”
A. [Simplified Answer!]: YES, many Starbucks Coffee Company branded mugs have high levels of lead in them (as measurable by testing with an XRF instrument).
Note: This is not illegal in any way; that is because currently the only U.S. reference standard on the books regarding total lead content (as detectable with an XRF) is the standard for lead in children’s items. There is no U.S. regulation – hence no regulatory standard – governing XRF-detectable total lead content in items not made specifically as “intended for use by children” — including total lead content in dishware/ceramics. Coffee mugs are not considered to be items intended for children.
Items manufactured, sold and marketed specifically to be used by children are required to test below 90 ppm lead (Pb) in the glaze (coating) and below 100 ppm lead in the substrate (base material) in order to be compliant with current regulations.
It is my firm opinion that regulations should be changed so that the same strict standard (the only standard which is actually fully protective of consumers’ health) is applied across the board to all consumer goods (especially including kitchenware) — not solely limited to items explicitly intended for use by children.
I have tested hundreds of Starbucks mugs for lead (Pb) over the years, and have a handful of results posted here on my site (please click through [on the mug description, which is a link] to each of the mugs to see photos and any additional specifics). Note, the ones that are positive for lead are generally positive at levels much higher than 90 parts per million!:
- 2017: “You Are Here Collection” mug, 6,397 ppm lead
- 2016: Black glazed espresso mug, lead-free!
- 2016: White matte glaze mug. 89 ppm lead
- 2015: Gold peace sign espresso mug, lead-free!
- 2013: Peru theme espresso mug, 16,900 ppm lead.
- 2011: White ceramic lined stainless steel travel mug: 63,549 ppm lead (interior!)
- 2008: White ceramic holiday mug, 11,200 ppm lead
- 2006: Pears & Flowers mug, 304 ppm lead
- 2006: White ceramic + stainless travel mug: 1,122 ppm lead
Conclusions (based on the small sample of Starbucks mugs and their test results listed here):
It seems like the newer white matte and black matte mugs are either lead-free or low-lead (i.e., within an acceptable range for lead by all standards.) Some of the plain white high gloss finish mugs are very high-lead (including one of the highest lead readings I have ever found for a Starbucks Coffee mug), so don’t get your matte and gloss finishes confused!
While Starbucks Coffee Company branded mugs are mass manufactured and likely tested for leaching (and therefore likely compliant with regards to leaching regulations at the time of manufacture, and so deemed to be “safe”), my concern with ceramics (and especially with mugs) is always about what happens over time — after years of heavy daily use with acidic contents, especially coffee or tea; at what point does the lead in the glaze start to break down and become a leaching hazard (?) and why are consumers put in the position of taking that possible risk at all?
The reason for this is twofold:
- the global environmental impact of including lead as an ingredient in products (including all of the chain-of-supply environmental impacts created within the horribly toxic lead industry — specifically the large-scale mining, refining, manufacturing of lead for use in glazes and pigments) — and also…
- because of any possible human health risks – even minor -posed by the routine inclusion of lead in so many manufactured household goods — including many that may, under “other-than-intended”, but nonetheless common, circumstances (e.g. heavy wear, damage, breakage/destruction, etc.) create lead dust or leach lead into the contents once they are older and worn (especially if – like your favorite coffee mug – are heavily used with acidic contents on a daily basis.) When there is so much lead everywhere we need to be concerned about aggregate impacts of lead exposure from all potential sources – and one of the simplest “first steps” is to make sure there are no leaded products in our homes.
Out of this stand, I would not personally choose to purchase any cup from Starbucks until further notice (until they change their policy and manufacturing standards to represent what is best for the environment, as well as what is best for their customers’ health and well-being.)
Purchasing advice for mugs in general:
Things I avoid when purchasing mugs (and cups, glasses, etc.):
- Anything labeled “crystal” or marked “leaded crystal”
- Anything from Riedel or Waterford (just to be safe, since you don’t have an XRF at home to test those items yourself)
- Anything glazed (unless it is being sold as “lead-free” from a reputable company and has been tested by a third party)
- Anything with an enamel coating (such as those blue and with speckled enamel coated metal camping cups)
- Anything (glass or ceramic) with decal image or logo applied to the surface inside or out (those decals are almost always very high lead, especially if you can feel them with your finger tip/ if they are slightly raised above the rest of the surface of the mug.) Note this includes clear glass with a decal. If your clear glass has a decal with a logo it is very likely high-lead-content paint!
- Paint-It-Yourself-Pottery mugs (unless a known third party has tested their glaze for lead-content with an appropriate XRF instrument.)
- Almost anything from a thrift store (it’s just not worth the risk).
Tips for choosing safe mugs:
In the absence of having an XRF available to test every potential mug choice, it’s best to stick with decal-free clear glass (as long as you can be assured that it is not leaded crystal.)
Some of the links on this page may be affiliate links where a purchase made after clicking will earn me a small commission without costing you extra!
Mugs that are the same as (or similar to) the lead-free or lead-safe ones we use in our home:
- Anchor Hocking 16-Ounce Glass Mugs
- Libbey 15-1/2-Ounce Tapered Mugs
- Libbey 13 oz. Robusta Classic Coffee Mug
- Luminarc Lead-Free Jumbo Mugs
- Bodum Bistro Glass Coffee Mugs
- Insulated double wall glass coffee mugs.
I also recommend anything new from Ikea, as well as pretty much any clear glass mugs that are not crystal (including most vintage clear glass).
Another option for lead-free mugs is anything made by a local potter who sources and mixes their own glazes. Potters will usually mark their wares “lead-free” these days (if they are lead-free) because that is a good selling point! If the mugs are not marked, just ask the potter if they know if they use lead-free glazes or not. [Personal note: my favorite potter on the planet (and he uses only lead-free glazes) is Greg Williams (Ceramic Generations, of San Anselmo, California). I have known Greg for 27+ years and his pottery is so beautiful, each piece is a true work of art. (I don’t know if he has a website these days but if you google him you can find his contact information!)]
Mother of Four Boys