It is known that lead levels in jewelry is a problem, especially for children (https://dtsc.ca.gov/toxics-in-products/lead-in-jewelry/). As a parent with jewelry-loving children I am aware that ingestion or inhalation of dust or any part of the jewelry will be toxic, while simply touching it would not be. However, several sites claim it is dangerous if one touches the jewelry and then touches their eyes, nose, mouth, food, etc and propose hand washing as a solution.

First, I am wondering what form the lead is in when it's found in jewelry metal alloys (not painted) and how exactly it gets to be toxic from there or what happens when you touch it (ions, oxidation?). I can't find any other information online about the form of lead in jewelry. I know it's inorganic lead and was told by friends it's elemental lead*.

Second, I am wondering what is the best way to remove the lead from jewelry exposure from skin? I've read that hand washing with soap and water is insufficient to remove lead from skin according to CDC, NIOSH, and such studies. But these were all focused on PbO from occupational exposure, and not on jewelry exposure (which I presume is not PbO). Is there some difference here that makes regular soap and water effective in this case?

*After reading similar posts on here and here, elemental and metallic lead (what's the difference?) even if ingested does not seem to be as toxic as ionic Pb(II) and covalent compounds of Pb, but there have been and continue to be cases of lead poisonings involving jewelry items, so either it is not elemental lead or elemental lead is more toxic than indicated here.

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    $\begingroup$ Lead toxicity mostly happens because people continue to use lead. The detail doesn't matter. There is absolutely not good reason why any jewellery should contain it. Or any modern paint. the best way to avoid it it is not to have any objects that contain it or are painted with it. $\endgroup$ – matt_black Dec 18 '20 at 12:34
  • $\begingroup$ I would be very surprised if any jewelry is made of lead today . Even a tin ,lead alloy ( solder )would be unusual. $\endgroup$ – blacksmith37 Dec 18 '20 at 22:06
  • $\begingroup$ Yes there's no reason to contain it, but unfortunately XRF testing done recently by both legal bodies and consumer advocate groups show there's a lot of violating jewelry (and other goods) even to this day. So if there is no way to tell which jewelry has lead, would the best course of action to be to completely avoid all jewelry? $\endgroup$ – evgenymik Dec 21 '20 at 23:10

Metallic lead is comparatively inert, but after exposure to air it quickly develops a film of lead compounds, including litharge, $\ce{PbO}$, basic lead sulfate, $\ce{Pb2SO4(OH)2}$, etc. Though these are not very soluble, sweat and bacterial action can convert them to much more soluble compounds.

Lead is also very soft, so touching an article made of lead leaves a residue on the fingers, similar to the way using an aluminum-handled tool leaves the hands covered in gray aluminum and its compounds.

The danger is usually not immediate, but rather the accumulation of toxic lead in the body. However, lead worn next to the skin is steadily abraded. Also, children (and pets) put things in their mouths or even swallow them. Stomach acids do dissolve lead, and there is high mortality in waterfowl from swallowing lead pellets.

This is why lead has no place in play things (or perhaps in most products, since it will almost invariably leach out to poison the environment).

That said, this is an abstract comment, and not to be construed as a way to "safely" use lead in toys.

  • $\begingroup$ Thank you! Do you think ISML-containing wipes as tested by NIOSH (researchgate.net/publication/…) could work against every day play things after they are accidentally touched then? Would lead also leave residue easily if it is in an alloy? $\endgroup$ – evgenymik Dec 21 '20 at 23:14
  • $\begingroup$ That's getting into the area of medical advice... $\endgroup$ – DrMoishe Pippik Dec 22 '20 at 0:13

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