Tamara Rubin is an independent advocate for consumer goods safety and 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. She uses XRF testing (a scientific method used by the Consumer Product Safety Commission) to test consumer goods for contaminants including Lead, Cadmium, Mercury and Arsenic.
June 6, 2021 – Sunday
This is a very personal piece for me, as my son A.J. (who is now 18 years old) made this for his 4th birthday in 2006 (after having already been Lead-poisoned at Age 3).
After the kids were poisoned (in August of 2005), we decided to stop getting presents for the kids’ birthdays and holidays (because everything we owned had been contaminated when the boys were poisoned, and it had been such a PITA to clean everything, that I just wanted fewer things in our home altogether!). Instead, we chose to DO safe and fun (and ostensibly LEAD-FREE) activities for each of their birthdays — and we ended up deciding on doing paint-it-yourself pottery with the whole family that year [2006 – and at least once a year, for several years after]…until I had the opportunity to use an XRF instrument to test the pieces that we had made at that local shop!]
We were horrified to learn that these pieces were super high in Lead.
When I first tested these (I think it must have been 2009 or 2010 – around the time I started testing consumer goods), I completely freaked out, as there were several pieces that we painted at that shop that we used with food on a daily basis — because the shop owner had assured us that they were “completely Lead-free and safe to use for food”. One was a dish (like a platter) that I would often serve the kids treats on – because it was a “special plate” that they had decorated themselves. The second piece was a giant mug – that I drank from all day / every day of my pregnancy with Charlie in 2007 and 2008 (and after his birth, as well!) It was only later that I learned that the mug I was drinking from (to make sure I was getting enough to drink during my pregnancy) was covered in a glaze that contained Lead at levels above 80,000 ppm. I tested positive for Lead in my blood shortly before giving birth to Charlie.
90 ppm Lead (or higher) is unsafe for kids. This ceramic hand-painted ice cream cone (box) tested positive for Lead at levels higher than 139,000 ppm!
The amount of Lead that is considered unsafe for items intended for use by children and made today is anything 90 ppm Lead or higher in the paint, glaze or coating, and anything 100 ppm Lead or higher in the substrate. I would not consider this item safe for use by children, nor would I consider the glaze used at this store safe for children (or any humans for that matter) to use in the artistic process. Most important to know for context: an item with Lead levels this high would be illegal if manufactured and sold today for use by children. The presence of Lead and the level of Lead in the glaze varied by color.
The concern for Lead in paint-it-yourself pottery goes far beyond the finished product.
If there is Lead in the glazes in use at a paint-it-yourself-pottery store [and this is not always the case, but you should definitely ask the owner of your local shop before you go — and if they say “ no”, be sure to determine how they know that (where they got that information), then there is likely Lead DUST (one of the most prevalent and dangerous forms of toxic Lead in our environment) all over the pottery shop, as well.
This is all the more concerning because protective gear is never worn in these shops — and it is also especially upsetting because these shops often host birthday parties, and other events (wine-drinking/pottery painting events for adults, for example) where food and beverages are consumed within the art space – and therefore the participants are at risk of both inhalation and ingestion hazards from the dust created by the dried-but-not-yet-fired glazed pieces sitting on all of the shelves around these shops. [Not to mention hand-to-mouth activity while handling / applying the leaded glazes — like eating a cracker, or cheese with a hand that had just wiped away an errant smudge of glaze from your piece, without washing your hands thoroughly first).
Is this still a problem in 2021?
Well…the owner of the particular shop we used to go to (in the Sellwood neighborhood of Portland) got cancer (not surprising — given the likely chronic, high-level Lead exposure she unknowingly had from her work environment) and had to close her shop. Prior to the closing of this shop I did call her to tell her about the Lead I found in the glazes that she had assured us were “Lead-free” — and that is when she told me she had cancer, had had to have her leg amputated, and would be closing the shop!
This was many years ago (maybe 8 or 10 years ago), and since then I have tested many more-recently-made paint-it-yourself-pottery pieces (all over the country), and have found these newer pieces to often have high levels of Cadmium (in the reds, pinks and oranges), but only rarely to have high levels of Lead.
I think with the implementation of the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (2008), stricter standards for art supplies (and expressly for art supplies used for activities and items intended to engage children) were likely put in place that impacted stores like this. I am actually not 100% certain how the new regulations have impacted awareness of potential hazards in all these stores specifically however, so I am still cautious — and recommend (in the absence of testing of your specific piece) not using any paint-it-yourself-pottery pieces for food use.] I also take that a step further, and encourage people to choose anon-food-use item (like a piggy bank or figurine) to decorate if they do go to one of these stores (out of an abundance of caution AND in response to the persistently high Cadmium levels in some of the colors).
When tested with an XRF instrument the ceramic ice cream cone pictured here had the following readings:
#1.) on the yellow criss crosses
- Lead (Pb): 139,100 +/- 5,800 ppm
- Barium (Ba): 556 +/- 174 ppm
- Zirconium (Zr): 36,500 +/- 2,200 ppm
- Tin (Sn): 1,986 +/- 163 ppm
- Zinc (Zn): 331 +/- 60 ppm
- Iron (Fe): 1,150 +/- 261 ppm
#2.) on the purple at the top of the cone
- Lead (Pb): 72,600 +/- 3,200 ppm
- Cadmium (Cd): 272 +/- 46 ppm
- Zirconium (Zr): 1,770 +/- 119 ppm
- Tin (Sn): 33,000 +/- 2,400 ppm
- Zinc (Zn): 342 +/- 68 ppm
- Cobalt (Co): 3,797 +/- 368 ppm
- Iron (Fe): 1,349 +/- 308 ppm
- Indium (In): 303 +/- 53 ppm
Thank you for reading and for sharing my posts. As always, please let me know if you have any questions and I will do my best to answer them personally as soon as I have a moment to do so.