Lead Paint Swabs Help You Thrift with Confidence

Lead Paint Often, but not Always, Cracks in a Distinctive PatternIn the Homes section of my local paper recently, a journalist featured the lovely home of a woman who prides herself on decorating inexpensively, using primarily vintage and found objects.

“Heck, yeah!” I thought to myself.

Along with the article, in which the woman talked of the beauty of vintage items, and the eco-friendly aspects of working with found materials, were numerous photos of her home. A cute metal toy truck held tableware, an old cupboard was transformed into a bookshelf and an antique shelf, its paint cracking in the typical pattern that lead paint makes, held her baby’s diapers next to the changing table.

I assume that I wasn’t the only person who wrote a letter to the paper that week, because the next week’s Homes section included a sidebar noting that the woman had since sealed all surfaces containing cracked paint with several coats of clear sealant.

It’s a common mistake for those who are novices in the practice of thrifting, and a common stumbling block for even those who are experts: how to tell if a coveted object is contaminated with lead paint?

The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) would like to cripple thrift stores, public libraries, and independent crafters partly to protect consumers from lead contamination, but among many, many, many better solutions to that problem, is one inexpensive, easy-to-use tool that could virtually end the accidental purchase of products contaminated with surface lead: the simple lead swab.

Lead swabs are made by a number of manufacturers, but they all work the same way: a swab is dampened with a chemically-reactive liquid, then brushed across the surface of an object. If the object contains lead on its surface, the chemicals on the swab change color. I’m an avid thrifter, and I used to be the parent of little children who put everything in their mouths (they’re older now), and ever since a serious lead scare with my older daughter when she was just nine months old, I’ve carried in my backpack a lead swab or two, a practice recommended to me by the community health worker who helped us when Willow was poisoned by lead. I used lead swabs over and over again on apartment searches and later on house hunts, often finding lead paint that hadn’t been discovered or disclosed to me. I use lead swabs when I thrift or garage sale, to determine if I should buy that gorgeous vintage toy or that piece of furniture. I use it when I travel to countries that don’t have strict lead laws, and I’ve even been known to surreptitiously use it at a dinner party, when served with gorgeous, handmade, glazed dinnerware.

I do occasionally come across fabulous vintage finds that have been contaminated by lead paint. I would never attempt to bring them home. I would never attempt to refinish them. I would never expose my family to such a dangerous substance. I’m glad that I have the means to test for it, so that I never have to.

8 thoughts on “Lead Paint Swabs Help You Thrift with Confidence”

  1. Where can you buy the swabs? We just received my husbands 35 year old bassinette from my mother in law, and I was just thinking I needed to find a way to check it! What timing for your blog post!!

    1. There are a lot of places online to buy the swabs–the companies who sell them are primarily marketing to the construction market, and once you browse the sites of a few different sellers you’ll get a good idea of what there is on offer. My very first lead swabs came free from my community’s health worker in charge of lead issues, so that’s another place to try, perhaps.

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  3. This is good to know! I am wondering if by now you can buy these at most home improvement stores. I’m gonna have to find some soon, so I can get thrifting with confidence!

    1. I have seen these at one of our big-box craft stores, but I don’t remember which one. We have a Lowe’s and a Menard’s. I have to say, though, that I can’t say enough about these lead swabs. It may be one of those things that, unless you’ve been affected, doesn’t seem a big deal, but they certainly do give me peace of mind, and I’m pretty crazy, so the occasional peace of mind is valuable!

      1. That made me laugh! I get the crazy part, as we well as the piece of mind. I tend to worry about odd things like that though, thankfully, we haven’t had any issues with it in the past.

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