Here’s Why You Should Always Use a Lead Test Kit When You Buy From a Thrift Store, According to a Toxicologist

Photo: Stocksy/Christian Gideon
Thrifting can be downright thrilling: Scouring shelves and racks for just the right item can be the best kind of scavenger hunt.

But before adding a previously-loved item to your home collection, it’s important to take a few simple precautions to keep the bed bugs, moths, and, ahem, lead away.

“Before 1978, lead was a common component of residential paint in the United States, and it was also used for painting furniture and other houseware items," says Kelly Johnson-Arbor, MD, an emergency medicine physician and medical toxicologist, and co-medical director of the National Capital Poison Center. "Today, some vintage items can still contain lead paint, and the old paint is likely to chip or form lead dust that can cause unwanted health effects.”

Experts In This Article

Not exactly the kind of score you were looking for from the thrift store.

What to test if you buy something used

Many housewares at vintage stores and thrift shops, like cups, plates, vases, and more, can have lead in them and therefore be unsafe to use for eating or drinking. According to Dr. Johnson-Arbor, some wares that test positive for lead can be safely displayed on a shelf. However, make sure they're kept away from curious children who may want to touch them. “If there are children living in or visiting your house, it’s not safe to have lead-containing housewares on display,” says Dr. Johnson-Arbor.

It's not just vintage you need to watch out for. Lead is sometimes found in imported products, like spices, cookware, dishes, cosmetics, traditional medicines, and pottery, according to Dr. Johnson-Arbor. While a decorative vase is one matter, cosmetics or spices that you put on your skin—or eat!—is another. "Lead glazes can also leach out of cookware or dishes, especially in the presence of heat or acidic environments. When humans breathe or consume lead dust or chips, lead toxicity can occur,” says Dr. Johnson-Arbor.

This doesn't mean you should never buy any of these items. Fortunately, there are tests that you can get to check your new finds for lead.

What should you look for in a home lead test kit?

There's no dearth of lead test kits available to buy on websites like Amazon. Yet Dr. Johnson-Arbor says that many kits are not entirely reliable and can offer false positives or false negatives. To make sure you get the real deal, choose a lead test kit approved and certified for use by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Examples include the 3M Lead Check kit, D-Lead, and the state of Massachusetts test kits.

3M Leadcheck Disposable Non-Staining Lead Detection Swabs
3M Leadcheck Swabs — $12.00

This instant lead test can help determine whether there is lead-based paint on wood, metal, drywall, or plaster surfaces before you remodel a pre-1978 home. If the swab turns red, lead is present: RED MEANS LEAD™, according to the manufacturer.

How to use a lead test kit properly for ceramic dishware and other thrifted items

Lead test kits are checking for something serious—but that doesn't mean they're complicated. In fact, the steps are pretty simple (and will be clearly listed in the included instructions). For example, for the EPA-approved 3M test, you should do the following:

1. Crush

Squeeze and crush points marked “A” and “B,” located on the barrel of the swab.

2. Shake and squeeze

With the swab tip facing down, shake twice and squeeze gently until the yellow liquid comes to the tip of the swab—it’s now activated for testing.

3. Rub

While squeezing gently, rub the swab on the test area for 30 seconds. If the tip turns red or pink, lead is present.

Are there other things in your home that you should test for lead?

In addition to testing thrifted finds that could contain lead paint, the EPA recommends also testing your water and plumbing for lead since heavy metals are known to leach into water. You should also consider testing the outside of your home and even the dirt around your yard if you plan to grow food or allow your kids to play in it and have any suspicion that lead may be present.

Why it's important to test for lead

There is no known safe level of lead in the human body—it has no function in our bodies. In children, Dr. Johnson-Arbor explains that lead exposure is associated with cognitive delay, lower IQs, and brain damage. Adults can develop neurologic problems, constipation, and high blood pressure after lead exposure.

If you suspect that you or a loved one has been exposed to lead, even if the results of a home lead test kit are negative, contact your physician or Poison Control (online at or by phone at 1-800-222-1222) immediately. Lead poisoning can be diagnosed with a simple blood test, and many patients are able to recover without difficulty.

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