Introduction (for those new to this website):
Tamara Rubin is an independent advocate for consumer goods safety. She is also a mother of Lead-poisoned children. She began testing consumer goods for toxicants in 2009 and was the parent-advocate responsible for finding Lead in the popular fidget spinner toys in 2017. Tamara uses XRF testing (a scientific method used by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission) to test consumer goods for metallic toxicants, including Lead, Cadmium, Mercury and Arsenic.
What happens when the finish wears off a door knob…
When I came across this perfect example of a door handle whose plating had worn off, exposing the Leaded brass substrate, I just had to take photos! It perfectly illustrates why I don’t recommend buying “nickel-plated” or “nickel-finish” or “stainless finish” knobs or home hardware — or any kind of knob or handle or other hardware that has “plating” or “finish” in the description on the package really…
When architectural hardware for your home is described as having “plating” or “finish” with a color indicator that the finish is silver colored (stainless, nickel, silver, etc.) or black colored (“oiled bronze finish” or “cast iron finish“) more often than not the underlying substrate of the item is high-Lead brass (in the 20,000 to 50,000 ppm Lead range) coated with a very thin layer of the silver-colored [or bronze-, black-, or other-colored] plating, paint, or other surface “finish”.
But is this an actual problem?
These pictures demonstrate clearly how the finish can wear with normal/“as-intended” use [granted, this is a particularly high-use door — the handle on a door to a bathroom in a gas station, but I have actually seen plenty of equally-worn handles in otherwise well-kept, lovely, upscale homes across the country]. And often, because the wear tends to be slow and gradual, it goes unnoticed.
Out of scientific curiosity, several years ago I conducted a series of informal experiments with some Lead-geek friends, using sensitive scientific equipment, which confirmed (in quantitative / measurable / numeric values) that the Lead from Leaded brass items like this, when exposed (due to the wearing off of the finish or coating) is in fact – consistently – easily transferred onto your hands when the Leaded item is touched.
When you think about the fact that the amount of Lead that is considered toxic and illegal in the substrate of an item “intended for use by children” is anything 100 ppm or higher, and you apply that to doorknobs — which are not only obviously used by children, but are also at child height and are often fiddled with / played with by children (observably to a rather excessive level, in fact) AND that these Leaded brass knobs generally have Lead at levels that can be measured in the tens of thousands of ppm, this definitely becomes even more concerning.
Is my child likely to be Lead-poisoned by a worn brass door knob or handle?
No. While Lead exposure is a concern, the level of exposure from a single worn knob or handle alone is unlikely (in normal circumstances, with the normally-anticipated behavior of neurotypical children) to itself be responsible for a measurably elevated Blood Lead Level, let alone a level that would be high enough to constitute a diagnosis of “Lead-poisoning”. Instead, the concern is for chronic, low-level Lead exposure – from all potential sources – that might contribute to a child’s aggregate, cumulative risk.
In raising awareness of these concerns, what we are trying to do here is eliminate all possible sources of exposure. We have so many sources of Lead exposure in our lives that we must be vigilant in considering the total impact of all of these together (the net impact of many small sources) and endeavor to eliminate as many of them as we can. If you can have a Lead-free doorknob and a Lead-free doorknob is a relatively inexpensive “upgrade” to your home AND it is something your child will touch every day – isn’t it worth the relatively trivial investment?
Tamara, what sort of doorknobs (or other hardware) do you recommend?
I would suggest the following guidelines for purchasing door hardware:
1.) Cheaper is most often safer (from a Lead-perspective)!:
Based on the testing I have done over the past ten years, with modern knobs made today, less expensive items actually are more likely to be free of toxicants. By “toxicants” I am specifically referring to heavy metals – including Lead, Mercury, Arsenic, etc.
It’s ironic, but the more expensive knobs and hardware tend to be made from Leaded brass — because the manufacturers want them to seem more “substantial” (heavier), and therefore perceived as somehow indicative of greater “craftsmanship” and “quality”, and thus more valuable (worth the higher price tag). This is an artificial construct; for most applications beyond a reasonable threshold of sufficiently strong/durable design and construction, they don’t really need to be substantially heavier or simply incorporate more mass to be significantly better at their simple function. A good example is the lightweight bright yellow brass knobs I typically find in many 1980s-built homes (knobs which are almost always Lead-free, and usually still in very good shape – even at 35- to 40-years-old!)
2.) As with all things, avoid “vintage”:
If you have learned only one thing from this website, you have likely learned that vintage (and antique) items almost always have unsafe levels of Lead. While upcycling and repurposing building components from an older home that may have been torn down… is perhaps “romantic” – it’s not necessarily safe for your family. Instead choose upcycled building components for pieces of your home that are not interacted with daily by children. Considering that this is something your children are going to interact with every single day, multiple times a day – possibly for decades, it is worth finding a Lead-free option if you can.
3.) Avoid things with the word “finish” in the description:
While this is not always a hard and fast rule (I have tested at least one “stainless finish” item that was in fact, stainless steel through and through)… if you are looking for a more robust doorknob or handle set, look for “solid nickel” or “solid stainless” or other language that is not indicative of mere plating, paint or other surface coating / finish that might be covering a Leaded brass substrate.
4.) AVOID the following stores for purchasing hardware – or really anything actually (especially hardware or items that children might interact with):
- Restoration Hardware
- Rejuvenation Hardware
- Pottery Barn
- Crate & Barrel
- Sur La Table
Most of the hardware choices I have tested from these stores have contained varying amounts of Lead. Granted, I have not tested ALL hardware choices (furniture / cabinets, doors, etc.) from these brands and stores (that would take a lifetime because there are so many!), but I have tested many, many examples (including metal knobs and handles; ceramic knobs and handles; glass knobs; and others of mixed mediums) — and virtually every example I have tested from one of these stores has had some amount of Lead.
Unfortunately, this has included very pretty decorative knobs that parents often choose to use for their children’s dressers, desks, closets, etc. Even though these items are not expressly sold as “items intended for children”, the bright colors and pretty patterns, large floral elements or animals, etc. make them an obvious choice for a child’s room — given that many parents are not aware of the slippery regulatory standards for Lead (i.e. that items not explicitly marketed as items “intended for use by children” are completely exempt from any Lead-content limits.)
5.) Avoid glass knobs and ceramic knobs:
The glass is often actually [very-high-Lead] Leaded crystal (this applies to even newly-manufactured glass items). Ceramics are often painted with high-Lead glazes or paints. Per my statements in Item #4, this includes the super-cute knobs that are painted with designs that may be attractive to children, sold at stores like Anthropologie and Pottery Barn.
6.) Specifically look out also for faux“wrought iron” hardware:
Imitation wrought iron is actually just steel, or aluminum (or Leaded brass) that has merely been painted — often with high-Lead black paint — to LOOK like wrought iron. Sometimes you will even find genuine wrought iron (new or vintage – like with railings on exterior stairs) painted with black Lead paint …so it “looks more like wrought iron”(!) [Ostensibly painted to prevent it from rusting.]
7.) Most hardware stores carry inexpensive Lead-free options:
Stores like Home Depot, Target, Lowes, Walmart or Ace Hardware (or similar) will often have many inexpensive Lead-free options in stock. I haven’t checked out Target’s selection recently (which can be found in their home hardware aisle, and I expect is fairly limited) – but given their good policy across the board (when it comes to toxicants), I think they might be a good place to start in your search for Lead-free knobs and hardware. Second choice would be Home Depot. I have tested DOZENS of low-cost options from Home Depot that have been Lead-free.
8.) Solid stainless and solid nickel are good options:
Again, if you want something “fancier” (more expensive, heavier, more solid) than some of the inexpensive (and likely Lead-free) options you might find at Home Depot, Target, Lowes, Ace (etc.), look for solid stainless steel options or solid nickel options. They do exist, and can be found at some of the specialty hardware shops – although I don’t have any specific brand to recommend to you. Instead, when shopping, ask your salesperson to check with the vendor about the specific construction and metals content of the hardware you are interested in purchasing.
Some additional reading that might interest you:
- Additional door knob posts I have written (both leaded and unleaded examples).
- Posts I have written about Leaded brass objects.
- My post discussing the testing methodologies used on this blog.
As always, thank you for reading and for sharing my posts.
Please let me know if you have any questions.