Painted drinking glasses can potentially contain harmful levels of lead and cadmium, a new study has found.

The toxic metals, which are found in the pigments used to paint the glasses, can peel off after repeated use and are at risk of being ingested.

Lead is a neurotoxin which has been strongly associated with reduced intelligence and impulse control in children while prolonged exposure to cadmium is known to damage the liver and kidneys.

Scientists conducting tests on 72 new and second-hand drinking glass products found lead and cadmium on the rims and surfaces of the glasses.

In some cases, the concentrations of lead were more than 1,000 times higher than the safe limit set in the US. There is no UK limit for the metals in glasses.

Around seven out of 10 drinking glasses tested positive for lead or cadmium.

The highest concentrations of cadmium was found in red enamel and lead was found in all recorded colours, including gold-leaf decorations.

Dr Andrew Turner.
Study leader Dr Andrew Turner wants the industry to switch to safer alternatives (Lloyd Russell/University of Plymouth)

Study leader Dr Andrew Turner, of the University of Plymouth, said: “The presence of hazardous elements in both the paint and glaze of decorated glassware has obvious implications for both human health and the environment.

“So it was a real surprise to find such high levels of lead and cadmium, both on the outside of the glassware and around the rim.

“There are genuine health risks posed through ingesting such levels of the substances over a prolonged period, so this is clearly an issue that the international glassware industry needs to take action on as a matter of urgency.”

Dr Turner is calling for safer alternatives to be used.

He said: “Given that safer alternatives are available to the industry, the overall results of this study are both surprising and concerning.

“Why are harmful or restricted elements still being employed so commonly to decorate contemporary glassware manufactured in China, the European Union and elsewhere?

“I believe consumers should be made aware of this, while retailers and the glass industry have the responsibility to eliminate toxic metals from decorated products.”

The study is published in Science of the Total Environment.