Lead-free vs. Lead-safe: What’s the Difference?

As parents experience more recalls related to lead in children’s products, we continue to receive ever more questions about descriptions used on product labels.  Many parents confess feeling like manufacturers are trying to sneak something by them, so we’re hoping to help clear up some of the confusion.

As The Smart Mama explained in our comments section below, the terms “lead-safe” and “lead-free” can vary greatly from product to product based what the product is made from and what it’s intended for.

It really depends on the product at issue. For example, lead-free when it comes to federal labeling of certain plumbing components means that the component can have up to 8% lead, although California has instituted a stricter law so that lead free means lead free. Lead free when it comes to children’s products can mean that the product has no lead above the regulatory limits – which is 300 ppm for children’s products, and 90 ppm for lead in paints and coatings used on children’s products.

But when it comes to lead in adult products, except for those items covered by the paints and coatings law, there isn’t a standard for most adult products. Some products are regulated by the FDA, like food contact ceramics. There is a soluble standard for food contact ceramics. Those can have lead present, but it can’t be soluble. Those may be labeled lead safe.

So when a manufacturer refers to a product as lead-safe, it may show trace amounts of lead in testing, but no more than the established federal safety limits.  On the other hand, some materials are naturally unlikely to contain lead – or they may be classified as a product expected to contain some lead – so manufacturers may choose to label them “lead-free.”

Because we don’t get the benefit of knowing exactly which products are which, you need to buy from reputable companies who use safer materials and complete third-party testing for heavy metals.   Carefully consider all painted products (wood toys and water bottles), those made from PVC (teethers and inflatables), and metal items (jewelry, house keys and water bottles).

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  • Jennifer Taggart, Thesmartmama

    The post is a little misleading becasue it really depends on the product at issue. For example, lead free when it comes to federal labeling of certain plumbing components means that the component can have up to 8% lead, although California has instituted a stricter law so that lead free means lead free. Lead free when it comes to children’s products can mean that the product has no lead above the regulatory limits – which is 300 ppm for children’s products, and 90 ppm for lead in paints and coatings used on children’s products.

    But when it comes to lead in adult products, except for those items covered by the paints and coatings law, there isn’t a standard for most adult products. Some products are regulated by the FDA, like food contact ceramics. There is a soluble standard for food contact ceramics. Those can have lead present, but it can’t be soluble. Those may be labeled lead safe.

  • Anonymous

    Hi Jennifer! Just wondering how you would suggest better explaining this complicated topic to the “average” person? Maybe Alicia can have you guest post on this topic to give it more clarity? Just a suggestion but I would love to have your take on it and in simple terms because it seems so complicated – just a simple breakdown for what someone like myself should be aware of.

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