Is Lead Crystal Safe to Use?
Everyone seems to agree that lead is dangerous, toxic, and sometimes even deadly. Lead-based paint has been banned for decades, leaded gasoline was phased out by the mid-nineties, and there are strict regulations in place for lead content in our water supply. Any time lead is found in food or toys they are quickly recalled, often amidst a dramatic public outcry and multiple lawsuits. So why do we insist on drinking out of it?
What is Lead Crystal?
Most of the glasses and stemware pieces you see in your day-to-day life are made with some form of soda-lime glass, which includes sodium carbonate, lime, silicon dioxide, and a few other ingredients thrown in depending on what the glass will be used for. Soda-lime glass is full of amorphous molecules, meaning they don’t settle in any specific order. In lead crystal, the lime is replaced with lead, which encourages a very specific three-dimensional molecular layout. The difference in the molecular structure is what causes lead glass to boast such a high refractive index, creating the distinctive sparkle associated with crystal. Lead crystal is also a softer glass, meaning it is easier for craftsmen to work into beautiful cut designs.
Lead crystal is generally easily identified; all you need is a fingernail or metal utensil. Tap your nail or a fork against the edge of the glass. If it clinks, it is glass, but if it rings, you have crystal. Generally, the longer the ring, the higher the lead content. Lead crystal is also noticeably heavier than glass due to its metal content, but take the glass’s size and thickness into account when comparing weight. If you hold the glass up to the light, glass may make a prism, but lead crystal will make a bright, vibrant prism and catch the light much more than glass will.
Dangers of Lead
Despite its dangers, lead has a long history of use in food-related products. Romans actually used lead to sweeten their wine, line plumbing pipes, and to craft vessels for food and drink. Reports from this time show that sterility, madness, and gout were rampant among the upper class, leading some scientists to believe that lead poisoning may have contributed to the downfall of Rome. More recently, leaded gasoline use in the United States has been blamed for the violent crime spike between 1970 and 1990, as one of the side effects of long-term lead poisoning is impaired decision-making.
As terrifying as those statistics are, they are based on large-scale and long-term exposure, so it may be tempting to downplay the dangers of low-level lead exposure. However, multiple studies have shown that even low lead levels in children directly correlate to lower IQ scores, with no threshold low enough to not have an effect. Further, these cognitive changes were permanent, even after the children received any necessary treatment to reduce lead levels in their blood. Suffice to say, science has proven repeatedly that even miniscule amounts of lead are dangerous.
Even knowing this, you might hope that using a lead crystal decanter every now and then can’t hurt. After all, the lead is encased in glass and in such small amounts. Sadly, that isn’t necessarily true. Lead crystal can contain up to 24 percent lead, and because the lead in lead crystal is actually a part of the glass, it does come in contact with the contents and will leach into the drink over time, especially wine or liquor due to their acidic natures. Studies have shown that wine stored in lead decanters has a detectable amount of lead content in as little as 20 minutes, and brandy stored in crystal for 5 years had the same levels of lead as that Roman wine mentioned earlier that was purposely sweetened with lead powder.
While long-term storage of alcohol in crystal vessels may be a questionable practice, what about short-term use? The FDA has very strict guidelines on lead levels in items meant to be used with food, but if there is no ‘safe’ level of lead other than none at all, you may wish to take some additional precautions. One of the things suggested by several lead crystal manufacturers is to allow a 50/50 vinegar and water solution to soak in the decanter for 24 hours before using it, as the acidic vinegar can help leach out much of the lead that would otherwise enter your wine or liquor. Because this will not remove all of the lead, you should probably still avoid storing drinks in a lead crystal decanter for extended periods of time, though experts disagree on how long should be considered safe, with suggestions ranging from no more than a few hours to up to two weeks.
Lead Crystal Alternatives
What should you do if you no longer trust lead crystal, but still want to serve your drinks in something pretty? No worries – crystal glass is here to save the day. Crystal glass falls somewhere between soda-lime glass and lead crystal in its softness and refraction index, meaning it may not be quite as sparkly as lead crystal, but it still has a leg up on glass. Crystal glass made by companies like Spiegelau contains harmless metal oxides such as barium, zinc, or potassium in place of lead. These metals add weight and refraction to the glass while avoiding the dangers associated with lead.
Although it never occurred to me that crystal had actual lead in it, I now know and the few pieces we have at my house have been relegated to an easy retirement life on display shelves. While some may view it as an overreaction, I prefer to err on the lead-free side of caution. How do you use your lead crystal pieces?