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). Tamara’s work was featured in Consumer Reports Magazine in February of 2023 (March 2023 print edition).
Originally Published: December 24, 2016
Updated: December 28, 2019
Question: Which mugs are Lead-free? What kind of mugs do you use in your home?
Answer: When I first got my hands on a high-precision XRF instrument and started testing things for Lead, one of the very first things I tested was my favorite set of Chantal mugs. I had a whole set of these mugs in different colors and I had purchased them to go with my favorite Chantal tea kettle. I was really surprised and upset that these mugs that I had purchased new at a reputable store in 2003 (made by what I assumed was a “reputable company,” no less) tested positive for Lead!
Those “favorite mugs” (pictured above) tested positive at 679 parts per million (ppm) Lead. Read more about XRF testing here!
Why is there Lead in mugs? How much Lead is “too much” Lead?
Total Lead content in the glaze or coating of modern mugs (as detectable with an XRF) is not regulated. As long as mugs are not leaching Lead at the time of manufacture (when they are brand-new), they are considered to be safe to use — even if the Lead content of the glaze is very high. However, for context, the amount of Lead considered unsafe (and illegal) in the paint, glaze, or coating of a newly-manufactured item manufactured and sold as “intended for use by children” is 90 ppm or higher. The good news is that, since children’s items are regulated for total Lead content (as of 2008), newly purchased children’s mugs legally must have coatings below 90 ppm Lead, and my findings have confirmed that manufacturers are generally complying with this law — although I recommend sticking with children’s items manufactured in 2011 or later, as it took a while for the companies and their supply chains to get up to speed in their compliance with the new regulations.
Since testing those first mugs, I have probably tested more than 1,000 mugs (they are one of the most popular things that people ask me to test and people often have collections of 20 or more mugs in their homes). Nearly all of the mugs I have tested have had at least some amount of Lead — some at ridiculously high levels (in the tens of thousands of parts per million!) added to many of the pattern transfers, or used as an ingredient to brightly-colored glazes that help stabilize the color (as I understand it), but it is not necessary for this purpose — as some companies have demonstrated — it is quite feasible to make mugs that are completely Lead-free.
Can a Leaded mug poison the user?
Several years ago I learned of a case of a Seattle couple who were both sick — with an illness that their doctor was having difficulty diagnosing. After some investigation, it turned out that this couple was Lead-poisoned — from drinking their coffee from the same Leaded mugs each morning as part of their breakfast routine! Please check out the articles linked below for more information on that as well.
Coffee is very acidic (as are many teas, juices, and some other beverages) and will leach Lead from mugs over time (especially from mugs with high Lead content, and are heavily used daily). This is even the case for mugs that ostensibly passed leach-testing at the time of manufacture.
If you have coffee every morning like I do, it is a simple investment in your health to make sure you have a Lead-free mug.
Other than possible free consumer goods XRF testing, which may or may not be available in your area, there is not a reliable, cost-effective consumer method for testing mugs for Lead and other toxic heavy metals. The most reliable “old-school” method for determining actual Lead content (as opposed to merely determining whether any is leaching at the time of manufacture) involves sending the mug to a lab for “digestive testing” — which is a method that traditionally necessitates complete destruction of the item that is tested — to determine the Lead content. That test generally costs in the $70 to $300 range per item, depending on the scope of the test (and also, unlike XRF-testing, can only determine the aggregate Lead content without a precise breakdown of the levels present in the surface glaze or coating vs. the levels in the base material/substrate)! Considering the inconvenience and expense of the existing testing options, it is much more cost-effective to limit your selection to known Lead-free options when choosing a mug!
#SaferChoice: Given the still-widespread use of Leaded glazes (and Lead-contaminated base clays) in ceramic mugs today, unless you have access to high-precision XRF consumer goods testing for testing every potential mug choice, it’s easiest/safest to just stick with clear glass mugs (so long as you make sure to avoid Leaded crystal)!
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after clicking will earn me a small commission without costing you extra!
Some Lead-free mug choices on Amazon:
The mugs listed below are mugs that are the same as (or similar to) the Lead-free (or Lead-safe) ones I have personally tested and some of the mugs we use every day in our home.
- These are the Lead-free mugs we are currently using in our home (by Duralex).
- 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
Other recommendations for Lead-free mug choices:
I recommend most new items from Ikea (although avoid the bright colors and decorations, as they have recently been testing positive for Lead again in some of these brightly-colored ceramic glazes!) and pretty much any clear glass mugs (except Leaded crystal). Most vintage clear glass mugs are either Lead-safe or Lead-free, too (again, make sure you look out for and avoid Leaded crystal, though)!
I used to recommend mugs purchased at Starbucks because I had a streak there where every Starbucks mug I had tested was either Lead-free or below 90 ppm Lead. However, that streak ran out recently (I think with the expansion of their mug selection – and likely the consequent expansion of the number of manufacturers they are using). So I no longer recommend them for a guaranteed Lead-free mug.
Another great option for Lead-free mugs is something from 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, ask the potter if they know if they use Lead-free glazes or not.
My favorite potter on the planet (who also does use Lead-free glazes) is Greg Williams/Ceramic Generations, of San Anselmo, California. I have known him for 30 years, and his pottery is so beautiful — each piece is a true work of art. He is an old-world artisan who still does business exclusively out of his shop and at craft shows, and does not have a website (but if you Google him you can quickly find his contact information)!
Things that I avoid when purchasing mugs:
- Avoid anything labeled “crystal” or marked “Leaded crystal” (exception: Libbey “crystal” mugs are Lead-free!)
- Avoid anything from Riedel or Waterford (just to be safe, since you don’t have an XRF instrument at home to test those items yourself).
- Avoid anything mass-manufactured made of glazed ceramic (unless it is being sold as “Lead-free” – from a reputable company – and has been tested by a third party). Note: many products being sold as “Lead-free” have not been tested by a third party — and are, in fact, not Lead-free!
Continue reading below the image:
- Avoid anything with an enamel coating (like the contemporary one above — as well as those classic speckled-blue-enamel-coated metal camping cups!).
- Avoid anything with a 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 fingertip/ they are slightly raised above the rest of the surface of the mug).
- Avoid paint-it-yourself-pottery mugs (unless a known third party has tested their glaze for total Lead content).
- Avoid Almost anything from a dollar store or thrift store (it’s just not worth the risk).
As always, please let me know if you have any questions, and thank you for reading!
Some articles that may be of interest:
2003 Chantal “Made In China” mugs
As high as 679 parts per million (ppm) lead
Non-detect for arsenic
These were my mugs (before I started testing everything I own with an XRF instrument!) … I was totally bummed to let them go, but now I have only Lead-free mugs in my house!