When I was growing up in the 1980s and ‘90s, my family owned a series of painted glass Garfield mugs, originally sold by McDonald’s in the late 1970s and early '80s and depicting the Monday-hating, lasagna-loving feline in various scenes accompanied by punny quotes relating to Garfield’s laziness or crankiness. Naturally, these glasses were like catnip (no pun intended) to my sisters and me, and they were my go-to vessels for orange juice as a child.
A few years ago when I spotted one for sale at a tchotchke-filled booth at San Diego Comic-Con. Its appearance unlocked a memory that had long been sealed away, and I immediately bought a new, dedicated juice cup — for those rare occasions I found myself drinking juice in my 30s, Then, late last year, the mugs had a bit of a viral moment when word spread that they contained dangerous levels of lead — allegedly around 1,000 times the current legal amount allowed for products aimed at children — and cadmium, a carcinogen.
I still have the mug as a “display only” item, but the experience made me wonder about the general safety of vintage drinking glasses.
Vintage glassware often contains lead, and even a little is a big problem.
The main thing to worry about with vintage glassware, as is the case with my Garfield mug, is lead. Lead is a cumulative toxin, meaning that it remains stored in your body and builds up over time the more you are exposed to it. Practically, this means any amount of lead exposure can cause harm, but the risk of severe complications rises as more lead accumulates in your body.
Lead poisoning is serious stuff, especially for children and pregnant people, who can pass exposure to their unborn babies. It can affect brain development in children, leading to irreversible changes in intelligence and behavior, and high levels can attack the brain and central nervous system, potentially causing death. The World Health Organization estimates that lead was the cause of close to a million deaths worldwide in 2019 — nearly half of all deaths caused by known chemical exposure.
Types of lead in vintage glassware
There are two ways in which lead may show up in vintage glassware. One is through the use of lead glaze or paint, as is the case with my Garfield mug. If the paint is on a surface of the glass that comes into contact with liquid or food inside your glass, then the lead can be drawn from the paint into your drink in a process known as "leaching." Once that leached lead is then ingested, it will be stored in your body forever.
For a vintage glass like my Garfield mug, where the paint is on the outside and doesn't come into contact with the mug's content, the risk of leaching is pretty insignificant. However, because the leaded paint is so close to the mouth of the glass, there is still a danger of bits of paint being ingested.
The second and probably more common manner in which lead rears its ugly head in vintage glassware is in leaded crystal. A lot of vintage glassware you'll come across, particularly nicer examples, are made of leaded crystal, which is glass that's been reinforced with lead to strengthen it against breakage. Today, so-called "lead-free crystal" has replaced leaded crystal in the glassware industry, with less harmful minerals like titanium taking the place of lead in the glass formulations. Leaded crystal is less likely to leach than leaded paint, but leaching is still possible — particularly if something is stored in leaded crystal container. For example, if you keep some bourbon in a vintage crystal decanter, lead will leach into the whiskey over time — and it will get worse the longer you keep it in there.
How to minimize lead leaching in vintage glassware
The safest thing to do with vintage glassware is to not use it for storing food or dring directly. But if you do have vintage glassware and are intent on using it, there are a few precautions you can take to minimize the risk of lead leaching into whatever you're consuming. Be aware, though, that these precautions only reduce your risk — they do not eliminate it.
Don't put vintage glassware in the dishwasher. The heat from the dishwasher can cause a breakdown in lead paint or glaze, making it more likely to leach into food (and potentially contaminating other dishes in the dishwasher).
Don't use vintage glassware if it's chipped or damaged. Lead glassware, whether painted or leaded crystal, is even more likely to leach if it's chipped, cracked or otherwise degraded.
Don't store anything in vintage glassware longterm. Storing food or liquids in glass containing lead, whether glazed or leaded crystal, will lead to lead leaching into whatever is being stored, with the amount of lead leached increasing over time.
Don't heat vintage glassware. Similar to the no-dishwasher rule, heating vintage glassware can also cause a breakdown that increases the likelihood of lead leaching.
Don't put anything acidic in vintage glassware. Foods and drinks that are high in acid, such as coffee or orange juice (oops), will leach lead out of your glassware a lot more quickly than non-acidic alternatives and should be avoided.
If you use vintage glassware, use it sparingly.
The safest bet is to not use vintage glassware at all, but if you're reading this article, it's probably because you have some vintage glassware that you enjoy using. And while lead poisoning is not healthy at any age, if you're an otherwise healthy adult who isn't pregnant or nursing, using vintage glassware every now and then is not going to kill you.
As long as you follow the rules that I've laid out above, and you keep all lead-containing vintage glassware away from children, your risks of being poisoned by leaded crystal are fairly small, according to the California Department of Public Health, which states, "occasional use of leaded crystal will not expose you to large amounts of lead, unless liquids have been stored in a leaded crystal container."
For painted glassware — including new glasses, which have often been shown to contain high levels of lead and cadmium — you should exhibit similar caution. Keep it away from kids, and seriously limit your usage, especially if any paint is near the lip of the glass where it could come into contact with your mouth.
So you should definitely forgo the vintage crystal decanter, but if you must, it's probably all right to fill up your 1950s rocks glass with an old fashioned once in a while.