The short answer is YES! Toxic levels of lead exist in many older items and since there are no regulations regarding the sale of used items in the United States, it is possible that the salt and pepper shaker set you just purchased has a high level of lead in it.
You can’t tell if an item has lead in is just by looking at it. The item must be tested to find out if the item has a level of lead content. This is especially important if the vintage item is being used to cook, serve or store food or if the item is for a child. Children are much more susceptible to lead poisoning since they are likely to either put the item in their mouth or handle the item and put their hands in their mouth.
Simple, inexpensive test kits that will tell you if an item contains lead are readily available at most hardware stores and are easy to use. These test kits will only tell you if there is lead present but will not tell you how much. To find out exactly how much lead is in an item you would have to have expensive equipment to test with or you can take your item to a facility that can do the testing for a fee.
Lead paint in homes and buildings was common prior to 1978 so vintage architectural features such as doors, window sashes, metal ceiling panels and ornamental items should be handled with extreme care. The dust from crumbling, chalky, paint can easily be inhaled and can result in lead poisoning. You can still enjoy these vintage items in your home but to eliminate the chance of lead poisoning it is vital that you either remove the lead paint using proper safety gear or seal the lead paint with a product that is made specifically for lead paint encapsulation.
Why should you care? Lead poisoning can cause many health issues such as memory and concentration problems, delayed mental development, headaches, fatigue, high blood pressure, muscle and joint pain, kidney damage, mood disorders, fertility problems and can harm a developing fetus. Testing and treatment for lead poisoning is available from your physician but may not reverse the damage it has already caused.
Before you serve your next meal on antique china that has some crazing (crackle finish), you must be aware that you are probably exposing your guests to lead. Better to use clear glass serving pieces over your china dishes or keep the china on in a display cabinet rather than expose your family to lead.