Many if not all keys you own could contain lead. Everyone owns at least several keys. You may have a key to the house, your car, and the lock on the storage shed, for example, but did you know ordinary keys may expose you to lead? Most people think lead is a problem associated with old paint, but many if not all of the keys you own could also contain lead.
Why is there lead in keys?
Lead is usually added to brass keys to make the metal softer to grind into the shape needed for individual locks.
Do all keys contain lead?
Not all keys contain lead but no one has a comprehensive list of which keys are safe and which contain lead. The amount of lead in individual keys may vary considerably. Most keys are made of brass whether they appear to have a brass color or not. Frequently keys are plated with other metals which can limit exposure to lead, but this coating can wear off over time. Generally, brass keys can be as much as 2.5% lead by weight. Keys made of other metals such as steel usually do not have lead in them.
The State of California took 13 key manufacturers and distributors to court regarding the lead levels of their keys. A settlement in which the companies agreed to lower the lead levels of their keys was announced in 2001.
What is the risk?
There are no Federal standards regarding how much lead is safe in keys. During the California trial though, it was found that minor handling of keys deposited lead on the hands during a normal task such as removing the key from your pocket and unlocking a door. The amount of lead found was compared to California’s Proposition 65 “no significant risk level” of 0.5 micrograms of lead. It was found that handling some keys deposited lead on the hands as much as 80 times the “no significant risk level”. The average of all keys tested was 19 times the “no significant risk level.”
What should I do to be safe?
- Don’t let children handle any keys or give them to children to play with
- Wash your hands thoroughly after handling any key
- Avoid mixing keys with gum, candy or food products that are commonly placed in a pocket or purse
- Use plastic or rubber covers for the head of keys
- Replace keys with worn plated finishes
Remember, the risk of getting poisoned by the amount of lead in a key is small. Typically, there is far more danger from lead in household paint and lead contaminated dust. It is still possible that lead could be ingested by hand to mouth contact though. This is especially dangerous for children because lead has been shown to cause neurological and developmental problems in exposed children.