Recent concerns over toxic levels of lead in jewelry items, particularly in imported items from China offered for sale as cast pewter or Tibetan Silver, have led to requests for information about how to test individual jewelry items.
Both businesses and individuals are becoming more cautious in buying and selling jewelry items that may contain harmful lead levels. Most governments regulate the amount of lead that may be contained in items offered to children. In particular, new laws in California restrict the lead content in jewelry for both children and adults. Information about lead toxicity and laws relating to it can be found in other guides provided by TierraCast (listed at the very bottom of this page) to help individuals with their buying decisions. Keep in mind that while there are a number of different tests available, the accuracy, costs and legal compliance of the various methods vary widely.
Simple & Inexpensive
The simplest test for lead is performed with a swab commonly found in hardware stores for about $4 for each test swab. Wiping the swab across the surface of an item can detect lead levels as low as .06% (600 parts per million) which are currently considered reasonably safe, given proper handling. A good summary of instructions for their use is available from the website of Center for Environmental Health in Oakland, CA. This type of test is quick and the most readily available to the consumer who wants to know if an item has a high lead content and might be harmful to handle, especially if intended for children.
"Consumer Reports" reviewed these products and offers their observations online and worth running a net search to find. However, there are some questions as to the reliability of this testing approach and online research should return search results on this topic with a query about "lead test swabs." You should also keep in mind that plating or other surface coatings can mask the composition of the underlying metal and can prevent an accurate test result. A small nick or abrasion of the coating (in an inconspicuous location) can help the accuracy of this type of test.
Several brands of these swabs are available under the names of Lead Check, Lead Inspector, and The Lead Detective. They can be purchased online or at local hardware and home improvement stores (usually in the paint section).
Somewhat More Accurate & More Expensive
A much more accurate test can be performed using X-ray Fluorescence Spectrometry (XRF). In this approach, the X-ray can be set to penetrate the surface to read the core material and report the percentage of each metal in the alloy that makes up the jewelry item. Each test cost around $100. Despite the increased accuracy and cost, this testing method does not satisfy recent California testing requirements for lead content verification. This method does not do well in reporting trace metals in small part per million quantities. It is better used to provide an analysis of the basic metals in the entire alloy.
Should you wish to use this method, you may find a local testing facility in your area in the Yellow Pages (or net search) under Laboratories-Testing or Laboratories-Analytical.
Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometry (ICPMS)
Most Accurate, Complies with regulations, destroys test sample
ICPMS should be chosen when proper certification is demanded. It is a sophisticated approach that yields accurate analysis (to 1 part per million), but destroys the sample in the sample preparation process. Depending on the particular lab, ICPMS costs from $25 to $90 per test sample and can only be done in the most technically equipped labs. Should you wish to use this method, you may find a local testing
facility in your area in the Yellow Pages (or net search) under Laboratories-Testing or Laboratories-Analytical. This is the approved method under the federal CPSIA (Consumer Products Safety Improvement Act) for testing lead in products marketed to children. Search CPSIA for more information.
TierraCast offers this information as a public service and believes that it is substantially true and correct. It is provided to aid the consumer, but it is not expert legal advice and should not be relied upon as such by individuals or businesses in their efforts to comply with current legislation in any country nor to satisfy themselves of the safety of any given item.
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