Lead is a toxic substance that can affect people of any age. It is especially harmful to children, pregnant women and unborn babies. Lead accumulates in your body, so even small amounts can pose a health hazard over time.
Unless handled carefully, lead cames and solders used in stained glass and lead lighting can be a health hazard if lead dust is swallowed or inhaled. Even occasional craftspeople are at risk.
The dangers of lead in stained glass
Working with stained glass and lead lighting often involves contact with lead fumes and dust. Any amount of lead fumes or dust is hazardous to your health, and so you should avoid exposure as much as possible.
Lead fumes occur when the solder is melted. Operating the soldering iron at very high temperatures releases more fumes than at lower temperatures.
Lead dust can be generated from sawing old frames. The plaster and fillings around the glass are also a health hazard as they might have absorbed lead over the years.
Working with stained glass
Be careful if you restore old stained glass windows because over time, lead cames oxidise, causing a white powdery coating that rubs off very easily. This powder can be inhaled. It also sticks to hands, clothes and tools.
Sawing cames can also create lead dust. To lessen the spread of lead dust from cutting old cames, wet them down before taking apart the old lead-light items, or use alternative methods such as cutting with a sharp knife or tin snips.
Further details on some basic safety precautions are listed below.
Keep yourself and your family safe
Because stained glass work involves direct contact with lead, pregnant women are strongly advised to stay away from stained glass activities, not only until the baby is born but also until after they have finished breast-feeding.
It is also essential to keep young children away from working areas, work clothes, supplies and equipment. Supplies that contain lead must be stored away from children, and have labels with safety information. Cases of lead poisoning have occurred when children have picked up lead particles from their parents’ clothes and cars.
Don't eat or smoke in the work area. Don't work on the kitchen or dining room table, or in any other area that you want to keep free of lead contamination.. It is strongly advised that work is conducted in a separate work area.
Wear protective clothing and eye protection at all times. Be extra careful to wash work clothes separately from the family wash. You should also shower and wash your hair as soon as possible after finishing work.
In your work area
Try to prevent the production of lead dust whenever you are working with stained glass and lead lighting. Always ensure workrooms are:
- adequately ventilated if you are dealing with solvents, but contained to prevent the spreading of lead dust; and
- easily cleaned, this means that working on carpets is not recommended. Plastic sheeting, or newspaper for very small quick jobs, is much safer.
Use a half-face particulate or air-purifying respirator that meets Australian Standard 1716. It should be fitted with a P1 (dust) or P2 (dust and fumes) filter, both of which capture small particles of lead. The respirator can be bought from major hardware stores. Replace the filter regularly.
Regularly clean all surfaces in the work area by wet dusting or mopping, not dry brushing or sweeping.
Tools and equipment should be cleaned by wet sponging, not dusting. Clean walls and windows at least monthly. Use a high-phosphate solution (containing at least 5 per cent trisodium phosphate, also known as TSP) or other lead-specific cleaning agent. TSP should be mixed at the ratio of at least 25g of 5 per cent TSP to each 5 litres of hot water. TSP can be bought from industrial cleaner stockists. Sugar soap that contains TSP is available from hardware stores and supermarkets
Note: Not all brands of sugar soap contain TSP and ingredients are not required on the labels—users will need to check the manufacturer’s website to ensure TSP is present.
Vacuum only with cleaners equipped with HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Air) filters to remove fine lead dust from the workroom. Wet mopping is the next best alternative if a vacuum cleaner fitted with a HEPA filter is unavailable.
Any cloths and other cleaning equipment used should not be used for cleaning anywhere else, otherwise you could easily contaminate other parts of the house.
Dispose of waste properly
Waste materials containing lead, including water contaminated by wet mopping, should be disposed of according to State/Territory or local government regulations. The water should be placed in a strong, securely sealed container. Do not pour water down drains or onto the garden.