If you’re using festive painted glassware for a seasonal gathering—or the kids are begging for decorative souvenir tumblers during your holiday road trip—you may want to read this first. A recent UK study found that some painted glasses, both new and secondhand, contained harmful levels of toxic metals.

The study, published online in the journal Science of the Total Environment, found that a significant portion of the painted drinkware tested contained high levels of the heavy metals lead and cadmium—which are sometimes added to paint to create vibrant colors. (Lead may be used to glaze the enamel paint as well.) 

It also showed that bits of paint could come loose and that lead and cadmium could leach out of the paint and possibly be ingested.

This research points out “an important and too-often overlooked source of lead exposure,” says Bruce Lanphear, M.D., M.P.H., an environmental health specialist at Simon Fraser University in Canada who was not involved in the study.

More on Lead

While the research took place in the UK, study author Andrew Turner, Ph.D., an environmental scientist at Plymouth University, says he has “no doubt that products of this kind are available in the U.S., especially when many western countries import items from the same or similar sources.” 

Consumer Reports’ food safety experts say we don’t know whether the glassware products in the UK study—or those with comparable levels of heavy metals—are here in the U.S. But they say the topic merits further study and that it’s wise for U.S. consumers to be aware.

“Exposure can definitely occur and the Turner study finding suggests leachable levels can be concerning,” says Tunde Akinleye, a food safety expert at Consumer Reports. “This is an avoidable source, and one of many that add to our heavy metals exposure.”

Lead poisoning—a buildup of lead in the body—has been linked to developmental delays, cognitive problems, and behavioral issues in children and teens. Significant exposure to cadmium, a carcinogen, has been associated with bone damage in adults. And chronic exposure to both substances has been linked to high blood pressure and kidney disease in adults. 

What does the UK glassware study mean for U.S. consumers? Here, what you need to know.

What This Research Revealed

Plymouth University researchers tested the surfaces of 72 pieces of glassware made mainly in China (with some from the European Union) that were painted with colorful motifs, logos, or cartoon characters.

They found that more than 70 percent of the painted surfaces tested contained lead and nearly 70 percent contained cadmium. 

The concentrations ranged from 40 to 400,000 parts per million (ppm) of lead and from 300 to 70,000 ppm of cadmium. 

“It’s amazing to find such high levels in glassware used for beverage consumption,” Turner says. 

For perspective, under California's Proposition 65 law, glassware with more than 600 ppm of lead and/or 4,800 ppm of cadmium on its painted surface must carry a package warning. 

Glassware that leaches more than 200 ppm of lead and/or 800 ppm of cadmium from within 20 millimeters—about three-quarters of an inch—of the lip area must bear the same caution.

The researchers also simulated repeated contact with lips and wear and tear on the glassware, and found that heavy metals did leach out of some glassware. Their tests revealed that 13 of 14 pieces with painted decorations near the top rim—where consumers' lips could make contact with them—released more lead than the amount California considers safe. And five of 14 tested glasses released more cadmium.

“The concerning thing is really the levels in the lip area, because that’s where people are far more likely to get exposure,” says Michael Hansen, Ph.D., senior scientist for Consumer Reports. 

The items tested included several glasses intended for kids. “Finding these types of pigments or glazes on cups targeted at children is particularly worrisome," says Jacqueline Moline, M.D., an occupational medicine specialist at Northwell Health in New Hyde Park, New York. "Children are at the greatest risk for heavy metal toxicity.” 

What Protections Are in Place?

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates lead and cadmium in “food contact substances,” including glassware used for cooking, serving, storing, or holding food.

In an email to Consumer Reports, FDA press officer Megan McSeveney explained that these heavy metals are not permitted in glassware manufacturing if they are "reasonably expected" to become a component of food. (That may mean, for instance, in products with painted decorations in the lip area.)

“Properly manufactured ceramic ware and decorated glassware should not present a safety hazard to the consumer under normal conditions of use,” McSeveney wrote.

The FDA's import alerts program allows the agency to detain products suspected of violating its laws and regulations.

As for the industry itself, in a statement to Consumer Reports, the Society of Glass and Ceramic Decorated Products (SGCDpro), a trade group, noted that it worked with the FDA to establish a voluntary standard on lead and cadmium.

According to that standard, no more than 4 ppm of lead and no more than 0.4 ppm of cadmium can leach from the outer lip and rim area (the top 0.79 of an inch) of products. A representative for SGCDpro also noted that members adhere to Proposition 65 standards. 

In addition, the statement said that SGCDpro member companies do not use paint-on-glass methods but may utilize organic or thermoplastic inks, glass enamels, or decals. “While it would be impossible for us to determine the composition of all decorating materials in use, some may contain heavy metals," the statement said, adding, "These materials are safe when properly fired or cured."

Smart Steps to Consider

Turner’s study isn’t the first to find heavy metals in kitchenware. Several previous studies have turned up hazardous levels of lead in glazed ceramic ware and pottery purchased in Mexico, for instance. And some studies have found that lead may migrate from lead crystal items such as wine glasses and decanters.

The experts we spoke with advise the following:

Take care with kids. If you have young children, don’t allow them to use painted glassware (or lead crystal, or ceramic ware that is old or imported). Pregnant women should steer clear of these products too. “Regulators all recommend against any preventable lead exposure for pregnant women and infants because they have failed to establish a lead intake level that does not have an impact on the development of a fetus or very young child,” says Tim Maher, vice chairman and treasurer of the International Crystal Federation (ICF), an industry trade group representing crystal manufacturers.

Limit your use of painted glasses. Turner and Lanphear both recommend that all adults be moderate in their use of painted glassware, particularly if decoration extends to the top rim. 

Wash by hand. Avoid putting painted glassware in the dishwasher, even if it’s labeled dishwasher safe. The heat and abrasion can cause the enamel to corrode or flake, says Turner.

Check labels on pottery and painted glassware. Pottery products that carry a warning label or have one stamped into their bottom—which may read “Not for Food Use—May Poison Food—should not be used for cooking, storing, or serving foods or drinks.  “Consumers should also check to make sure that glassware they purchase for food use is not labeled as being for decoration only,” says the FDA’s McSeveney.

Be careful about old and poorly maintained items. The FDA recommends caution with pottery and ceramic ware that is handmade, antique, damaged or very worn, purchased from flea markets or street vendors, or brightly decorated in orange, red, or yellow. Lead may be used to intensify these colors. The experts we spoke with also advise against drinking from painted glassware with chipped or faded paint. “If it’s a sentimental piece, let it be decorative,” says Moline.

Skip lead check swabs for this purpose. Don’t rely on lead paint test kits to alert you to the presence of lead on glassware (or ceramics). “They most likely will not be able to reliably detect lead in painted glassware,” says Hansen. 

Save lead crystal for special occasions. For adults other than pregnant women, drinking from lead-crystal stemware once in a while should be fine. “Lead crystal has never been identified as a significant source of lead exposure,” says the ICF's Maher. To reduce the likelihood of any leaching, don’t store liquor in a lead crystal decanter for an extended time, says Moline: “Pour it back into the bottle as soon as you are done using it."

Consider lead crystal alternatives. If you’d prefer, opt for crystalline glassware—sometimes marketed as lead-free crystal. In these products, now common in the U.S., Maher notes, substances such as barium, potassium, and zinc may be used in place of lead.