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If you’ve recently moved into a new place, or you’re always on the hunt for a good deal, or you simply love finding high-quality or quirky items for less, chances are you spend a good amount of time at the thrift store. Buying secondhand is better for the environment than buying new, and offers a good opportunity to make your home uniquely yours — but there may be something important that you’re forgetting to do when you get home with your goodies.
If you’re purchasing vintage or used ceramics, it may be a good idea to do a lead test. I recently purchased a set of mugs and saucers that look like they could have come out of a ’90s diner — I was in love with them and they were just $3 a set! When I got home, I purchased the Pro-Lab Instant Surface Lead Test.
The kit comes with two strips and an eye dropper. To use it, I took the eyedropper, placed about four drops of water onto a strip, and rubbed the strip over the surface of the cup for two minutes. For ceramics, it’s a good idea to rub the strip anywhere food or water will be held, including the inside of a cup or plate and the rim of a drinking vessel. (The kit suggests rubbing over any cracks, but if your ceramic piece has a crack, it will not be food-safe anyway, as bacteria can live inside of the crack.) The test will start out as an orange color, and if lead is present it will turn pink, purple, or red. The process was pretty simple, and thankfully, my cups and saucers came back with no detectable lead.
So, what do you do if you’ve purchased a funky antique mug and the test comes back indicating there’s lead on it, which is poisonous when ingested?
“If I loved a drinking glass that had lead in it, I might repurpose it as a vase,” says Annabel Taylor, a real estate agent with Sotheby’s International Realty who purchases most of her household items secondhand.
Before you go reevaluating every ceramic piece in your home and buying all of the lead tests available, keep in mind that you’ll really only need to do this test for pieces that you use for food and drinking. And some pieces pose more of a risk than others.
Earthenware pieces are the biggest culprit for containing lead, according to the pros. Earthenware ceramics are low-fired, which means that the clay does not become vitrified (it is not able to hold water). Terracotta pots in the garden are earthenware, for example.
Furthermore, the glaze on the piece is typically the issue — not the clay itself. After all, the clay cannot hold water; it’s the glaze that makes it possible. “The ones that might have lead are most likely going to be pieces with glazes that have reds, oranges, yellows, and greens,” Piece says. “And thrifters should be aware of pieces with decals and luster.”
Next time you go thrifting and find a ceramic piece that you fell in love with, you don’t have to be afraid to purchase it. Consider buying a lead test in the event that you want to use it for holding food or drinkable water — and if it does contain lead, you can still get creative in finding a way for that piece to bring joy to your home in another use.