Published: January 30, 2020
Is it really a problem?
Hey friends! So many of you have been asking me this question (or some variation of this question) over the past several days:
- ”Is it really a problem? Especially if a kid is not eating a book?”
- “Do we need to take this seriously?”
- “Or is it “only” a potential contributor to total aggregate Lead from various background sources in our lives?”
This is (an expanded version of) what I responded to one post comment:
There is a potential significant Lead dust hazard with old books, and that can include concerns for both the inhalation of and ingestion of Lead-containing micro-dust. Lead is not considered carcinogenic, but is a neurotoxin; in fact, Lead is one of the most potent neurotoxins known to man, and all public agencies agree that there is no “safe” level of Lead exposure for a child.
Many of the books I have tested, including books like Winnie the Pooh — especially hardcover books with painted decorations on the covers from the 1940s and 1950s and earlier — have been positive for 4,000 – 8,000 ppm Lead (or higher) in the worn painted covers when tested with an XRF instrument. Current standards require that all newly-manufactured items today that test above 90 ppm Lead or higher in the paint or coating are to be considered illegal to be sold as an item “intended for use by children“.
Even books that may not present a total content hazard (because all of their XRF readings come in below 90 ppm Lead) may present a significant dust hazard. Dust hazards are looked at in a completely different way than content hazards in consumer goods. It takes just a microscopic amount of Lead (literally) in dust to poison a child.
Make no mistake about it: not only are Leaded inks used in the printing of most of these books, but these covers are often painted with actual LEAD-BASED PAINT, which all scientists agree creates Lead dust in one of the most dangerous forms for children. Lead paint dust can be a very significant hazard / significant exposure source of Lead for a child. This exposure concern is present even if young children are using these old books “normally” / “as intended” [they don’t need to be chewing on them them to potentially be exposed]. Here’s a post about how toxic Lead micro-dust can be.
Of course, as I understand it, not a single scientific body has done any sort of study attempting to evaluate and quantify the Lead dust hazard created by vintage books. Why? The answer to this “why?” is always the same: because there is no person (nor any industry) who perceives that any potential direct financial benefit would come from doing such a study, so no one has been willing to fund such as study. [If I am wrong about this and you know of a study that quantifies lead dust hazards in vintage books, please do let me know by commenting on this post!]
As a result I have decided to undertake some independent dust wipe sample testing on a few old books that I have here in the collection for my “Museum of Lead”. I will be doing a video showing the dust wipe sample collection procedure on some of the old books, and then will be sending those dust wipe samples to a testing lab to see if the dust hazard can be quantified in some way as a correlative concern to certain total content levels (using XRF technology.) I will report the results on my blog and in a follow up video as well… so stand by!
Here are the direct links for the posts that initiated these inquiries:
As always, thank you for reading! Stay tuned for the dust wipe sampling test results — and please let me know if you have any questions!
Thank you for the information. After reading your posts on vintage books, we went through our little ones entire
book collection as well as our own and purged any older or questionable books. There were a few unique or
sentimental books but it was an easy choice with a toddler in the house to get rid of them.
The peace of mind in ordering a newer versions through Amazon is worth the cost.
Thank you for all of your time and work.
Thank you for commenting, Mike! Yes – we have very few old books and even a lot of the “old books” we have are newer – since 1985 was a long time ago already!
We lost everything in a house fire in 2002 and – ironically / sadly – the hot spot of the fire was significantly fueled by our extensive and significant book collection (we had each had thousands of books when we got married in 2001- when my husband and I combined our libraries!)
We have since moved around the corner from the public library and, as such, manage to keep a much smaller collection (of mostly new – purchased after the fire) books for the kids! What I love is that you can buy many of the classic collections (literature, short stories, history, etc.) for very little today in book stores (new). Plus we are the luckiest people on the planet because… we can ride our bikes or take the bus to Powell’s anytime! 🙂 We love browsing in Powell’s! [They do have a room upstairs for Leaded / Antique / Vintage books – and I think you have to be an adult to go in there and it has glass walls and a door – to help keep the kiddos out I presume.]
Not knowing at the time about lead issues, about 10 years ago I donated many boxes of those exact same Seuss books and lots of others of same vintage to a mom’s group in Seattle. They were all from many years previous when my kids were young in the 70’s. Oops! Nothing I can do about it now. Sigh. So Sorry to whomever ended up with them.
How old would the books have to be to have lead based paint/ink? Would books from the 1980s-1990s?
I know my kids have some from when I was little (1980s and up….even into 2000s)….should I be concerned and remove these?
Hey was hoping Tamara can help with this? Are books from 1980s on ok ? 1990s onward ok? Thank you so so much.
Hi there – please check out the overview post which has lead-levels broken out by decade:
I don’t believe the lead in the type comes from the ink itself, but rather the fact that older printers used lead type (and hence, a small amount of lead transfers to the ink). At least that’s my understanding.
Lead paint in illustrations is a different story.
Thank you for commenting. Depending on the age of the printed materials there can be Lead in both the ink (as an ingredient/colorant/color stabilizer) and /or Lead as a transferred contaminant from leaded typeset used in the printing process.
Christine Scherb says
How do you suggest we dispose of old books?
Also wondering if books from the 80’s should be thrown away. Thank you!
Stefanie Sanden says
What about US made playing cards? Is there a concern for lead in these. Thanks!
New cards should be Lead-free. I haven’t tested enough vintage cards to have an educated opinion on that though- sorry! I do have some I could report on though and I will see how quickly I can get those up on the blog.
Stefanie Sanden says
Oh my gosh that is so helpful thank you! According to the ace of spades (there is a little code on there that begins with a letter that gives dates it may have been printed) the deck should’ve been printed in 2005. Would this have been recent enough do you think?
Marge Turngren says
How about adults – is the lead unsafe for them, also? If so, how would it affect them?
Christine Roberts says
Hey Tamara, great article!
I buy quite a lot of vintage clothing. Do you think these would also be at risk for lead? Also, what sort of kit or equipment can I buy that will let me test each item (clothing as well as other items) for lead? Thanks!
There is no home test kit unfortunately – not one that works for testing consumer goods. I write about this here:
and yes – vintage clothing is problematic when it comes to the presence of toxicants.
The vintage jewelry category here on the website might give you some ideas:
Erica Williams says
Hi there, I have found so much helpful information on your site. Thank you so much for your hard work! I do have a question about books already in the home. I have a collection of books in my kid’s room and there are some antiques that need to be removed. Is simply removing them and wiping anything they were touching a good enough cleaning method? Or are there any other steps you would recommend? I would hate to leave lead dust in their room after reading about how toxic it is.
All this information is so important. Thank you. Is it dangerous to be in a room full of old books if the books are not moved, not opened? I just learned about the dangers of old books in this website and your Facebook page. My son’s room is full of books from when he was a kid, books probably older than 1986 and for sure some are much older than that. When he comes with his children, they sleep in his room full of those old books. Now that I know that, I must take away those books, and I must tell him the reason. So I must first know what to say, is there a danger when the books just sit there not being touched, because right now his books are not used yet… but his children will soon read them because they like reading…I mean they would read them if I leave them there.
Those are not the only books that I will get rid of. I have some old childrens books from before 1886, more like end of 70s… used by our grandchildren!!! . And I have even older books like beginning of 1900’s… with the red cover and the thick yellow pages… Our house is full of leaded books!
Just in case you would want to test some old books before I get rid of them, if you think it would be helpful if I sent a few of them to you? I suppose not, you must have tons of books to test already… anyway, thanks, this info helps take steps in the right direction.