Crystal Decanters Off-Limits

By Robert L. Wolke
Wednesday, June 7, 2006

I have an old crystal decanter, bought at Tiffany's circa 1950, that I would like to keep filled with port (18 percent alcohol) on my sideboard. I have heard that alcoholic liquids can leach the lead out. Would that be sufficient to be of real danger? And, even more important for my peace of mind, is it possible to determine whether it is, in fact, lead crystal?

It was bought at Tiffany's, and you question its authenticity? O ye of little faith!

But first things first: Assuming it is genuine, don't keep your wine in that decanter. I'll explain.

True, there is enough fake "crystal" floating around to justify some suspicion. The word "crystal" cannot be trademarked, and every huckster peddling a chunk of glass can call it crystal with impunity. It's not very easy to be fooled, however, because genuine lead crystal is heavier and has a special brilliance. Moreover, the labor involved in cutting decorative patterns into glass bowls and decanters is not likely to be wasted on junk.

Lead crystal, known less ostentatiously as lead glass, contains between 18 and 38 percent lead oxide instead of the calcium oxide in ordinary glass. Lead oxide gives the glass a higher refractive index -- light-bending power -- so when decorative facets are cut into it, whether by hand or machine, it sparkles more brightly.

Old decorative crystal pieces were traditionally made of glass containing 32 percent lead oxide or higher. But today, manufacturers adhere to a maximum of 24 percent, the minimum amount that, according to a 1969 European Union directive, can be called crystal. The reduction was due to concern about lead leaching out of crystal decanters. Studies had found that wines and spirits stored for even only 24 hours in lead glass decanters contained alarming amounts of lead. As a result, the International Crystal Federation, an industry group, voluntarily set 1.5 milligrams per liter as the maximum amount of lead that could be leached over a 24-hour period from a small crystal decanter into vinegar (admittedly, a pretty sad facsimile of wine).

In practical terms, how much lead is this?

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has established an "action level" for lead in drinking water -- the level that will trigger regulatory action -- of 0.015 milligrams per liter. The 1.5 milligrams per liter of lead that may be lurking in your decanter is 100 times that amount.

Scary? Let's do the math.

Assume that your drinking water contains the action level of lead. If you drink two liters of water per day, you would ingest 0.03 milligrams of lead. In comparison, an after-dinner glass (3 ounces) of port from your decanter would contain 0.13 milligrams of lead. That's more than four times as much lead as you would get from all that water.

So to stay below the EPA's action guidelines, you have two options: Have a glass of port from your crystal decanter no more than once every four or five days, without drinking any water in between, or do not keep your wine in the decanter.

I strongly recommend the second option.

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