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 2023 (March 2023 print edition).
Thursday — September 15, 2022
The image above is a collage representing all of the items containing Lead that we recently found in a Montessori kindergarten. Out of respect to the family who hired us to test their child’s classroom — in a departure from our normal procedures — we are intentionally not sharing any actual photos of the items found (since it might be easy to identify the school by sharing those photos), nor any specific information about the name or the location of the school. I did, however, want to write up these findings, so that others could benefit from this information.
Why do I do this (how is it that I end up testing classrooms).
(Note: I am sharing the information and context below not to generate business, I am sharing this because I think the politics of it all is quite interesting. Most schools are AFRAID to have us come to test and so won’t cover the cost.)
First I would like to share that we are often hired by parents to test the items in their child’s school and to assess whether or not there are any Lead concerns in that particular school. We have done this across the United States for all types of schools — public and private, preschools, high schools, kindergartens, elementary schools, and even colleges (living quarters, specifically).
Typically, this often comes with a degree of “controversy“ – in the form of a significant level of resistance from the school; there are very few exceptions to this (aspirational examples — in which the school bravely welcomed the opportunity, and responded positively to the information learned). Sadly more commonly, school administrators feel “threatened” by the idea that we might find harmful substances/objects in their school. School administrators’ resistance often centers around concerns for “liability“, fear of possible potential blame, anger, ostracism, or other potential negative reactions from parents, and other potential financial considerations – as they are worried that if it is made public that Leaded objects were found in their facility, parents might be very upset – and leave the school.
In the case of the particular classroom that I will be discussing below – this was one of the rare exceptions — the school welcomed the parents’ interest in protecting not only their own children from exposure to Lead but also helping to protect all of the children who attend that particular school!
We do pride ourselves on handling the “tougher” cases well (the cases in which the school administration falls in the range of “reluctant” to “downright hostile”!)…after all, these administrators and others are human beings— and, in most cases, they are actually people who possess a genuine passion for learning, or they wouldn’t choose to work in education! In every single challenging case, despite some initial degree of hostility, the teachers or school administrators we have interacted with have come around to treating this as an educational opportunity – and a means to help them improve their school.
In most of these cases, it is a parent who initiates and pays our consulting fee, as a contribution to the school [it is rare for a school to hire us directly (or pay our fee in collaboration with the parent) – but that also does happen occasionally]. Sometimes, a group of parents chips in together to cover our fee. We have also been hired by several owners of small private preschools — interested in making sure they have the safest possible teaching aids and tools in the environment they have created. So far, we have always found Lead (and other toxicants), however… because – amazingly, despite all the recent media coverage of Lead hazards in municipal water systems, (and some general awareness of Lead-based paint hazards in older buildings) – there is still so little awareness and knowledge about the risks from exposure – particularly for young children – to Lead and other metallic toxicants in consumer products, including children’s toys, books, and other items found in schools and daycares — especially products manufactured before any protective regulatory standards were established!
While working on this project with the family that hired us, I explained to the parent that I wish we could have (anonymously/”generically”) filmed this examination and discovery process — as it would be an incredibly valuable educational experience / instructive tool to share with others. If anyone has the resources to help me do this again soon – helping to cover the cost of a film crew (and editing, as well) – we would love to create a publicly-available YouTube video of this inquiry (showing and discussing the testing all of the items in a Kindergarten or preschool classroom for toxicants including Lead, Mercury, Arsenic, Cadmium and Antimony) as a resource tool for families, teachers and schools. [Thanks in advance for any connections to potentially help make that possible!]
Isn’t illegal for classrooms to have toxic objects?
It is not illegal for classrooms to have objects in them that might test positive for unsafe levels of Lead. The only law (that I am aware of) governing classrooms is about the buildings / structure / paint on the buildings and the requirement that “child-occupied facilities” (buildings in which a child might spend six hours a week or more) do not have Lead hazards related to the building itself – hazards that might present a Lead-poisoning exposure risk for the children present. There is no law governing the contents of a classroom for children. [There are also scant few professionals with the knowledge and capability necessary to identify likely hazards from objects in a child occupied facility.]
Why is this a problem?
(Why is it a problem that Lead-contaminated objects are found in a classroom.)
- Lead is incredibly toxic — the amount of Lead that is considered unsafe in a modern/newly-manufactured item intended for use by children is a level of just 90 ppm [parts-per-million] Lead or above in the paint, glaze or coating (and for most items, 100 ppm or greater in the substrate (the base material of an object).
- There were items in this classroom that tested positive for Lead at levels as high as 500,000 ppm Lead (that’s 50% Lead!), and higher.
- To reiterate: there is no law mandating that everything in a child’s classroom needs to be safe for children to touch and use (from a Lead / toxicant perspective).
- Most (but not all) of the items that were found to have Lead in this particular case study (the Montessori school discussed below) were items that were not modern items manufactured and intended for use by children, but were items made for use by adults, and/or vintage items— and thus not made with current / modern safety standards in mind at all.
The items found in this particular case included the following types of materials:
- Lead paint;
- Leaded vinyl;
- Leaded brass;
- Lead-painted glass,
- Lead – the solid metal (as a component of an item);
- Leaded-contaminated glassware (normally under 10,000 ppm Lead);
- Lead crystal (normally over 200,000 ppm Lead);
- Lead glazed ceramics; and
- Lead-containing stains/ sealants (on wood).
With that list as background, here are the specific items that I found in one particular Montessori classroom – items that were positive for significant amounts of Lead — levels of Lead considered unsafe (and illegal today in any item manufactured and sold as intended for use by children). In each section, I will also discuss the realistic potential exposure risk for that type of item (not all of these items have equally-concerning/probable exposure risks.)
Category #1: Lamps
- There were several lamps throughout the classroom…most were vintage; all tested positive for Lead. Some tested positive in the electrical cords, some tested positive in the shades, some tested positive in the base materials of the lamp (brass; glass; ceramic; etc.) One of the most dangerous components of these lamps (from a Lead-exposure perspective) is the electrical cords (especially on the vintage lamps), as the Lead is in the surface rubber/plastic of the cords — and children routinely touch those, and given the level of deterioration (with age) of most of the cords – the Lead can (and definitely does) rub off onto the hands of any person touching those vintage electrical cords. Separately, there was a Tiffany-style Leaded-glass lamp in one of the classrooms — and in these, the metal joining lines between the glass are typically pure Lead (or, in other cases, nearly-pure Lead). These lamps are brightly colorful and very attractive to young children, and it is not unlikely that a young child might interact with a lamp like that – and even directly touch the solid-Lead lines. This type of lamp should never be in a classroom for young children.
- Alternative: because of the widespread issue with metallic neurotoxicants in electrical cords, avoiding table and floor lamps in classrooms with young children is the preferred solution here. Given the Montessori philosophy may be interpreted as to advocate the use of floor lamps (to make the space seem “warmer” – more like home / more natural) modern, newer floor lamps should be purchased from reputable vendors with a good history of toxics-free manufacturing. [Target and Ikea are good options for safer floor and wall lamps.]
Category #2: Brass Candlesticks and Candle-snuffers
- The Lead content in most formulations of brass that one typically associates with heavy candlesticks [sometimes variously called “yellow brass” or “red brass”] is very high. Brass generally tests positive for Lead with levels in the 20,000 to 40,000 ppm range — compare that to the regulatory limit for Lead in items intended for use by children (of 90 ppm or 100ppm for coatings / substrates, respectively!). With Lead levels at and above 20,000 ppm, it is likely and anticipated that unsafe amounts of Lead can (and will) rub off onto the hands of a child touching & handling these objects. Brass items are NOT safe to have in a classroom (or home) with young children.
- Safer alternatives: unpainted hand-made / hand-carved wooden candlesticks, and stainless steel candle snuffers might be good options. Modern stainless, ceramic, or glass, candlesticks are also good options [TIP: ordinary glass items often have a visible “press line” — indicating they were formed by pressing molten glass into a two-part mold — whereas similar Leaded crystal items do not].
Category #3: Framed Wall Art
- In this particular school, there were quite a few paintings on the walls – and even some paintings propped up at “child-height“, on the lip of the blackboards. Many of the paintings / framed artwork were positive for Lead in the frames (frames that were painted with high-Lead paint [normally “golden”] and quite accessible – where they might likely be touched by a child). Of course, it is also possible that paintings themselves can be painted with Lead-based paint (especially if they are older / vintage).
- Solution: Paintings should always be hung on the wall out of reach of children and if the painting is an oil painting, [or of an unknown type of paint – which may contain Lead], vs. a poster*, or other framed piece of art, the artwork should not only be framed but the framing should include mounting the artwork safely behind glass, so it cannot be touched by a child.
*Note: modern posters and prints are generally Lead-free.
Category #4: Brass Goblets and Bowls
- In the classrooms in question there were also examples of high-Lead content brass items like chalices and bowls. Even though these items were not necessarily intended to be used for food-use purposes in these classrooms, they still had Lead levels that were quite concerning — even just in the context of them being touched or handled by a child. This is especially concerning in a situation where a child might touch a high-Lead brass object and then subsequently eat (like say, eating a carrot, or an apple) — without thoroughly washing their hands with soap & water first — which could result in them ingesting micro-particulate Lead — that wears off of the object, onto their hands, and then onto the food item they eat. It is important to note that with these types of exposure scenarios we are not talking about incidents that might cause the acute / easily-measurable (via Blood Lead Level testing) poisoning of a child; we are talking about potential exposures that could contribute to the aggregate background / cumulative low-level Lead exposure for a child. Given we know there is no safe level of Lead exposure for children AND we know that the impact of Lead exposure is cumulative over our lifetime – it is best to avoid these types of exposures whenever/wherever possible.
- Alternatives: hand-made, un-painted high-quality wood goblets and bowls might be a appropriate alternatives, depending on the application. Alternately, modern hand-made ceramic bowls and and goblets (from a local artist, using confirmed Lead-free clays & glazes!) are a good alternative, too. Modern, clear glass objects might also be a good alternative. Since most people do not have the means to properly test consumer goods, avoiding all brass objects in a classroom designed for use by younger children is a good rule!
Category #5: Off-brand Toys
- During our visit, we found an alphabet book puzzle toy (which did not have any visible branding on it). Faux-leather (vinyl) components of this toy were positive for unsafe levels of Lead. This item appeared to be a new / modern toy — likely purchased off of Amazon, from one of the many Chinese vendors selling direct (from manufacturer to consumer). I will be doing some more research on this particular toy to see if we can initiate a CPSC recall on this toy (if we can determine the vendor/manufacturer for the toy). It is not uncommon for teachers (who are often working with very limited budgets) to purchase toys themselves for their classrooms. Not all teachers are aware of the concerns for off-brand toys and this is an area where additional education (perhaps integrated into the teaching certificate/degree programs) is needed, so that this sort of thing happens less frequently.
- Alternative: Only buy toys for classrooms from known reputable brands.
Category #6: Vintage and hand-me-down Furniture
- This particular school had several examples of furniture that tested positive for Lead in surfaces or components, where a child might interact with the furniture. There were several pieces of older stained-wood furniture that tested positive for varying levels of Lead in the stain. There was a Leather-topped vintage side-table (with gold embossed edging), where the leather and gold edging were positive for unsafe levels of Lead. There were multiple bookshelves made of particle board where the vinyl edging of the particle board [on both white and brown bookshelves] tested positive for unsafe levels of Lead (as high as 3,000+ ppm Lead). There were some small tables with functional drawers on which the brass hardware (drawer pulls; knobs) tested positive for unsafe levels of Lead.
- Alternatives: The simple solution here is to stick with 100% natural-wood, modern furniture (which can be found inexpensively at Ikea, Target and other similar stores), and not risk potential exposure from vintage or antique second-hand furniture (that may have been donated to the school by well-meaning families).
Category #7: Ceramic Teacups, Mugs, Bowls and Fancy Glassware / Crystal
- Vintage teacups (normally very high-Lead); ceramic mugs (often high-Lead); and Leaded crystal goblets (=300,000 to 550,000 ppm Lead) are often present in Montessori classrooms. This particular school had cooking areas in each classroom as well as worship areas (it was a religious school) containing unsafe items in this category. The Lead crystal items included both goblets and small pitchers / cruets for pouring activities.
- Alternatives: It is easy to replace Crystal (in an application like this) with plain inexpensive clear glass — normally easily-found for just $1 (or thereabouts) per piece at Walmart, Target, or The Dollar Store), and it is also not difficult to find Lead-free replacements for cups, mugs and bowls (items that still fit with the style and intention behind the Montessori philosophy). Modern Homer Laughlin / Fiestaware is a good choice, if one must go with ceramic — or maybe find a local potter willing to donate some hand-made cups [if confirmed to be Lead-free, of course].
- WARNING: The two primary pathways for Lead exposure in young children are inhalation and ingestion; because these items are likely to be used regularly for drinking, any vintage items in this category should be considered potentially hazardous for the intended use, and should be proactively immediately replaced. Given the extremely high Lead levels of the crystal goblets, they can also present a hazard just from being touched by young children (as micro-particulate Lead can wear off on to the hands from very-high-Lead crystal objects).
Category #8: Cookware / Bakeware
- In addition to the items noted above, the cooking stations in this school had several other items that were unsafe for use by children (especially given they were intended to be used for food preparation). These included measuring cups that had painted measurement markings containing Cadmium, and “‘Lead-free’ pewter” measuring spoons – which in reality tested positive for high levels of both Lead and Antimony (Antimony is a known carcinogen). One also often finds colorful “decorative” vintage kitchen trays in cooking stations like these – and those can be painted with high-Lead paints.
- Alternatives: stainless measuring spoons and measuring cups; glass measuring cups (for liquids) without any painted measurement markings. [I would consider this a high-priority area to make safer — as the objects are used for food preparation, — things like the measuring spoons, etc. — may be put directly in the mouth of younger children engaged in imaginative play at these stations.
Category #9: Ceramic vases and planters
- While this is a relatively low-risk concern from a Lead perspective, the risk is “non-zero“. In this school there were several ceramic vases and planters that tested positive for Lead. Since these are not used for food-use purposes, the risk is low, and these would be last on my list of priorities for replacement. The primary concern is if something like this breaks – but as long as it is cleaned up with the level of detail one might be expected to use when cleaning up broken glass or ceramic, then that would also likely constitute being cleaned-up to a practical removal of any probable Lead concerns, from such an incident as well. [The exception to this is low-fire, ornate decorative ceramics — popular souvenirs and prized collectibles traditionally made in Italy, Portugal, Spain, and Mexico – where un-fused metallic micro-particulates in the brightly-colored glazed surfaces can readily transfer onto hands, and thus present a serious touch hazard for Lead.
- Alternatives: shop Ikea, or Target for low-Lead alternatives to these types of items.
Category #10: Handmade hand-painted toys
- In this school we found one home-made toy (a manger – made primarily of wood, and moss, and other natural findings, but which had additionally actually been painted with high-Lead paint (over 2,000 ppm Lead) – on a back wall that was painted to look like stone. Unless a teacher or school specifically can commission this type of toy with the expressed intention that it be made only of confirmed Lead-free materials, (donated) home-made hand-painted toys should not be allowed in a classroom setting for younger children.
- Alternative: make sure homemade toys do not include any painted materials or painted components (also avoid metal components in these types of toys.) Purchase homemade toys from an artist who knows (and complies with) the current regulatory standards for Lead (and other toxicants) in toys.
Category #11: Musical Instruments (including bells)
- It is incredibly important to make sure any musical instruments (including bells) used in a classroom with young children are sold as items intended for use by children. In this school we found many bells with high levels of Lead, specifically high-Lead brass (in the typical 20,000 to 40,000 ppm range.) In general the concerns for instruments not made for children (or toy instruments not made by a reputable /known company) can include: Leaded brass, Lead-painted wooden surfaces, Lead-painted metal surfaces and high-Lead composition metal used as a component (like the center ringer bead / “clapper” of a hand bell.)
- Alternatives: purchase instruments from known vendors, instruments specifically made for use by children.
Category #12: Religious artifacts
- Given this was a religious school, we found MANY religious artifacts that were high in Lead. These included religious framed artwork; religious toys (hand-made, as noted above); altar components (brass bowls; bells; candlesticks; etc.); some glass bowls; crystal goblets; brass and pewter goblets; etc. In addition to those items (each discussed separately above), there were many crosses and religious figurines – in stations where they were set to encourage the children to touch and interact with them. The biggest concerns for these items were crucifixes with Leaded-brass components, and some very-high-Lead–ceramic figurines. Given the ceramic figurines are not intended to be touched and played with in the same way (they are more for symbolic decoration) they are not necessarily as high-risk as the Leaded-brass items that are meant to be touched.
- Alternatives: resin figurines (not ceramic – but rather hard, sculpted/molded plastic) are generally Lead-free, and easy to find (in fact there were also several examples of these in this school). Crosses made only of carved wood might also be a good alternative to ones decorated with brass or other elements – crystals, paint, etc. – which may be high-Lead.
Category #13: Diffusers
- In my professional opinion as a child-health advocate, essential oils-diffusers are not appropriate to use in a classroom with young children — not from a Lead perspective, just from a respiratory-health perspective.
- That said, the metal disc in the center of diffusers can often be very-high-Lead (the type this classroom had had a center disc that tested positive for over 500,000 ppm Lead). This is not necessarily a Lead-exposure concern [but could conceivably be — if a child took apart the diffuser, and decided the disc looked like a piece of candy (which it actually kinda does!)…and put it in their mouth!] As most diffusers are kept out of reach of children, and are not easy to disassemble, I do not have a huge concern for the Lead found in the diffuser in this school – although I sincerely wish the diffuser manufacturers would STOP using high-Lead components, as using them goes against the theoretical mission of these companies (purveyors or products for purported health benefits!)
Two side notes: “Lead-free Pewter”, and Montessori Brass Polishing
- “Lead-Free Pewter” is NOT a safe option for objects used by children. As with the measuring spoons found in this classroom, contrary to the misleading name, “Lead-Free Pewter” often has high levels of Lead (sometimes up to 2,500 ppm Lead, or more!) and, even beyond the issue of high-level Lead “contamination” [the preposterous excuse proffered by manufacturers for explaining away such high amounts of Lead in their falsely-named “Lead-Free” formulation!], in order to make “Lead-Free Pewter”, the Lead in the mix of metals that traditionally comprises the Pewter is replaced with Antimony (a known carcinogen, similarly toxic to Lead – officially added to the US hazardous substances list / list of carcinogens as of December of 2021) — commonly present at levels of 70,000 ppm and up in “Lead-Free Pewter”! So even “Lead-Free Pewter” that is truly Lead-Free (which is rare) is still quite unsafe for humans to handle (and especially unsafe for children to handle – and even worse for use in any cooking activities!)
- Brass Polishing is a common practice in Montessori schools. It is a very dangerous activity for children (given the high level of Lead in most brass object that one might use for a brass polishing activity) and it should be discontinued, as it most definitely exposes children to an unsafe level of Lead (in most cases, with very few exceptions.) For those not familiar with the Brass Polishing activity in Montessori, I found this article discussing the reasoning behind the practice.
The Montessori teaching philosophy includes the intentional integration of many of these items (items specific to the various teaching stations and opportunities for learning). Unfortunately, historically (and currently) many of the items used to engage children in Montessori classrooms in the United States are toxic / not safe for children by modern standards. Fortunately, there are inexpensive safer alternatives for each and every item of concern, and it should be easy to transition your child’s Montessori classroom to one that is also safe from a toxics perspective.
I do want to say that while writing this article, I took the time to research the types of items typically used in Montessori classrooms (and the reasoning for the use of each of these items). I also went on a bit of a hunt to try to see how the integration of the toxic items happened. It truly seems to me that this is primarily a factor of donated items (or thrifted items) selected by teachers / donated by well-meaning parents for each of these classrooms. When I looked at some of the larger websites that sell Montessori classroom supplies, I did see mostly non-toxic options that more closely adhere to the Montessori philosophy than what I often see in some Montessori classrooms. Here’s one Montessori supply website that appears to sell mostly non-toxic options (note: I have not purchased, nor tested any of the items from the site, but it looks like they generally have safer choices).
Note: I may update this article with more of the items that we found in this particular school, but given the timing — the start of a new school year — I wanted to make sure to publish this as soon as possible so that parents had this article as a guide when visiting their child’s classroom. Using this as a reference, you can look around your child’s classroom and make some educated guesses as to which items in the classroom may warrant easy replacement with a safer alternative. 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.
Owner — Lead Safe Mama, LLC
Here are some links to some science & additional articles in support of the concerns noted above:
- Whether from an antique shop or discount store, toxic Lead items are easy to buy — NPR, August 1, 2022
- There’s Lead in THAT?! — WebMD, September 6, 2017
- Lead in brass and bronze food equipment — January 12, 2021
- Lead dangers still lurk in unexpected places — October 23, 2008
- Brass devices in plumbing systems can create serious Lead-in-water problems — November 12, 2010
- A presumptive case of Lead-poisoning in a brass-worker’s child — August 2000
- The CPSC’s Lead Content Guide (for children’s items)
- Mayo Clinic Lead-Poisoning Overview Page
- WebMD: 5 surprising sources of Lead exposure — October 30, 2021