The Softer Side Of Lead Paint

Foreign manufacturers use lead paint not because they want to poison American children, but because lead paint is, “bright, durable, flexible, fast-drying, and cheap.” The domestic use of lead paint in residences, hospitals, and children’s products was banned in 1978, though lead paint is still widely used. Slate explains:

Paint manufacturers mix in different lead compounds depending on the color of the paint. Lead chromates, for example, can enhance a yellow or orange hue. Municipal workers often use lead paint because it resists the color-dimming effects of ultraviolet light: The double yellow line in the middle of the road? That’s loaded with lead. Paint manufacturers also add lead and other heavy metals to make paint stick better instead of flaking off. Price is also a factor: China mass-produces the stuff, and coloring agents like lead chromate are generally cheaper than organic pigments. (That said, added lead used to be a luxury. A house painter in the early 20th century would show up to a job with two buckets–one for the paint substrate, one for the lead powder. The more lead he added, the better the paint, the higher the price.)

Lead paint has other qualities that make it attractive to manufacturers. For one thing, it resists mildew, making it perfect for wood furniture and other surfaces likely to get wet. It’s also anti-corrosive: Ship makers have historically applied a coating of lead paint, often containing the red mineral litharge, to the bottom of metal ships’ hulls. (The Romans used lead paint, too–that’s why the paint on some of their ruins is so well-preserved.)

We once spoke with a painter who gushed about the beauty lead gave to white paint with the prideful reminiscence reserved for parents of honor students killed in Vietnam.

Why Do They Put Lead Paint in Toys? [Slate]
(Photo: Medioimages/Photodisc)


Edit Your Comment

  1. flintstone03 says:

    Consumerist, you have made me fall in love with lead! *Joy*

  2. dbeahn says:

    Yes, and your average alcoholic will go on and on to you (if you let them) about the supposed benefits of booze. All the while ignoring the obvious problems it’s causing for them…

  3. balthisar says:

    I don’t have children yet, and if I did, I’d take steps to keep them from chewing on the walls. I think — I’m not a parent, so is that reasonable?

    I imagine there may be other methods of introduction, which is probably why it was banned back in the 70’s when we didn’t have such a nanny government yet.

  4. nighthwk1 says:

    Lead paint isn’t always a bad thing… “Flake White” [] oil paint is the lead-based stuff mentioned at the end of the blockquote. It’s highly regarded by artists for it’s unique properties, and as long as you don’t cover yourself with it, eat it, or sand it, it’s perfectly safe.

  5. StevieD says:

    How about cleaning things up at home before we critize others.

    Anybody been to one of those paint your own pottery studios lately? My girls love to go.

    The paint they use on the tables is nontoxic and lead free.

    Can’t say the same thing for the glaze that they are dipping the stuff in.

    The glaze is labelled foodsafe or dinnerware safe, but in like 95% of the studios the glaze has leaded in the formula.

    The studios say that the leaded glaze is easier to use. Big whoop.

    Why should a studio that is catering to children be allowed to use ANY leaded products in the studio?

    Yea, yea the glaze meets FDA foodsafe standards. Again, big whoop. The children are exposed to dried glaze and lead dust. Inhaling the lead dust is dangerous.

    Let’s banish leaded glazes in the USA before we critize other countries that do the same as we do.

  6. m.ravian says:

    i’d find it VERY unlikely that one of those paint your own pottery places used leaded glazes (fyi: i have a bachelor’s degree in ceramics and i’m about to start a master’s program). a friend of mine bought a Color Me Mine franchise about five years ago and she is absolutely not allowed to use leaded glazes, per company policy.

    in addition, i worked for a pottery supply company and we were not allowed to sell leaded glazes to anyone working with kids, period. my boss was actually in process of phasing out carrying those kinds of glazes to begin with.

    there are MANY MANY kinds of low and high fire glazes that are not leaded, and are extremely stable as well as beautiful. in addition, there’s this great company in Canada called Spectrum that recently invented a way to encapulate the cadmium in red glazes, thus making them food safe.

    however, every time i see that bright red dish made-in-China set at Target, i shudder. i wouldn’t trust that.

  7. Buran says:

    Lead paint may have all these benefits, but it still is banned in the US. Use it elsewhere where it’s OK, but it’s still not OK here.

  8. Amy Alkon says:

    I’m actually wondering whether mugs and dishes made in China contain lead. Going to get some test strips instead of junking all my mugs.

  9. says:

    @balthisar: It isn’t so much that children were chewing on the walls that caused lead to be introduced into their system. Older paint tends to flake, and flakes of paint would get into the environment — their food, air, on their hands as they crawled about.

    Children are much more vulnerable to lead poisoning since they are (1) small and (2) growing rapidly. However, anybody can have problems. There was a famous case of some ambassador who was becoming more and more ill over time. They thought it was some slow-acting poison being introduced by spies. Turned out the old paint on the ceiling of her bedroom was loaded with lead, flaking off slowly, and being inhaled by her every night, leading to long-term lead poisoning. As soon as she started sleeping in a different room (and had that one repainted with unleaded paint), she got better.

  10. says: Actually, researching more, turns out I was partly wrong — Clare Booth Luce got arsenic poisoning from her ceiling paint, not lead poisoning. But the point is generally the same — flaking paint leads to you ingesting the paint and therefore ingesting whatever the paint ingredients were.

  11. mconfoy says:

    @Buran: as the article says, its not banned in the US — its restricted in its use to certain environments such as the lines on the road and ship bottoms, etc. I am surprised to hear about the lead paint in ship bottoms, Coast Guard or Navy ships do not use it. What they use is much more effective, more expensive, and highly toxic when applied. Full suits are required. So by no means is lead paint the most dangerous paint in use as the marine organic-copper paints that stop the fouling of ship bottoms by slowly leaching poison, are much more dangerous.

  12. Crazytree says:

    this thread made me want to go sprinkle some lead powder on my Chinese food for dinner!

  13. Televiper says:

    Re: “Nanny State”

    There is a reason why government regulations exist. It’s mainly because human beings have demonstrated a certain callous indifference to other human beings when money could be made. Also, the average person doesn’t have an uber-encyclopedic knowledge of everything they buy at the super market.

    Ironically the lead paint animates this point perfectly.


    The main problem with interior lead paint is dust. , and the fact that it can be absorbed through the skin. In electronics assembly you’re required to wear latex gloves partly for this reason.

  14. dbeahn says:

    @StevieD: Well, you just knew that there was gonna be at least one of these types, didn’t you?

    “The glaze is labelled foodsafe or dinnerware safe, but in like 95% of the studios the glaze has leaded in the formula.”

    Really? So this figure came from where, exactly? As if the wording “like 95 percent” doesn’t tip the rest of us off that you have no basis for this statement, but you figure if you make up a statistic, and use a REALLY big number, it’ll make you sound like you have a clue…

    “Yea, yea the glaze meets FDA foodsafe standards. Again, big whoop. The children are exposed to dried glaze and lead dust. Inhaling the lead dust is dangerous.”

    OK, so you’ve made up a figure, and then turned around and said that the glazes are FDA approved after all. So we know there has been testing, and that means there are also “safe handling” guidelines.

    Clue: Bleach is hazardous if you drink it or use in in a confined space. That’s why the label says “don’t do it!”. If you, however, wish to use bleach in a closed room with your children in it, then pour the kids a nice, big glass to have them drink, I see no reason YOUR inability to follow simple “safe handling” directions means we have to BAN bleach. On the other hand, if China exports soft drink with bleach as a main ingredient, then HELL YES we should ban it.

    See the difference?

  15. papa_panda says:

    If we’re buying these products from other countries where lead paint isn’t outlawed, we are choosing to poison our kids. If your neighbor is making marijuana brownies and you know about it you don’t bring your kids over to get high (unless you like that. =]).

    The issue isn’t about lead it’s about foreign made goods. If we are the people buying these products, do we have control over what is allowed in it or not?

    If you absolutely need toys to keep your kid entertained, but don’t want lead in them, make some toys yourself. I’m sure I’ve seen some on instructables.

  16. StevieD says:


    The glazes that these studios are using (according to the Contemporary Studio Association):

    Mayco C-109
    Gare GG 1700d
    Duncan GL 612d

    Each of the 3 glazes that I listed are lead based according to the respective manufacturers and the published MSDS if it is on a weblink.

    I am glad your boss is phasing out leaded glazes. Of course there is a big difference between phasing them out and just plain ole stop selling them. Phasing them out means that your boss is still selling them, he just aint selling as much. So in a way, you just confirmed that he is still selling the leaded glazes.

    I never heard of Spectrum, but then I am down here South of the Canadian border, so I am only concerned with what studios are using down here.

    I did a bunch of checking out this lead issue. Did some calling around. Checked with the Contemporary Studio Association and those three manufacturers. The 95% figure came from the manufacturers who collectively said that they offer a leadfree glaze but only like 1 in 20 studios choose to use the leadfree glaze. The CSA said basiscally the same thing.

    I was SHOCKED that studios would use leaded glazes.

    The local studio got into a huff with me over this issue. I just stopped letting my kids to go. She saw the light (loss of $) and switched to Duncan CN 2000d which according to Duncan (and the published MSDS) is leadfree.

    By the way, as of last report a private labelled version of Mayco C-109 is what was being used by Color Mine Studios. The wording that is being used with the glaze is something to the effect of “no added lead” which is completely BS because the frit that is used to make the glaze is actually a leaded frit.

  17. Chicago7 says:

    Artists are generally idiots, though.

  18. welsey says:

    I took intro to painting a few years ago, and the second class was about safety. We spent most of it on how to properly clean up and not coat ourselves in cadmium (and not to chew on our brushes), but then the teacher spent the rest of it talking about the wonders of lead paint. Artists love toxic materials!

  19. mconfoy says:

    @dbeahn: Careful that you don’t get athlete’s mouth now.