What is Depression Era Glass?
According to the National Depression Glass Association (NDGA), Depression glass is glassware manufactured in America from the early 1920s through the end of World War II in 1945. This period of manufacturing is what defines a piece of glassware as Depression glass.
It often came in colors like green, pink, blue, and amber.
Is Depression Glass Toxic?
Depression glass can be leaded or unleaded glass, it often had arsenic added as a bubble-reducing agent, and further additives like Uranium were added, dependent on the color.
- Green Depression Glass: Chromium and/or Uranium
- Yellow Depression Glass: Uranium
- Blue Depression Glass: Cobalt
- Brown Depression Glass: Nickel
- Amber Depression Glass: Carbon, Sulfur, Iron
- Purple Depression Glass: Manganese
- Red Depression Glass: Gold, Selenium
- Alexandrite Depression Glass: Neodymium
Lead, Arsenic, and Uranium can all find their way into the food or drink and become a risk to the user.
Dr. Lyle Burgoon, a Toxicologist, contributed to this article by providing the risk assessment for each type of Depression glass.
This post contains affiliate links. Upon purchase, I make a small commission at no extra cost to you.
Does Depression Glass Contain Radioactive Elements like Uranium?
Some colors of Depression glass contain Uranium; Uranium gives glass a yellow or green color, and is referred to as Uranium Glass.
You can test your glassware for Uranium by exposing it to UV light (i.e. a black light). If it is positive for Uranium it will fluoresce (glow) from the UV exposure.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends against eating or drinking from Uranium glassware.
But because the glass only contains a small amount of Uranium, many websites argue that this glass is safe to eat off of. I asked toxicologist Dr. Lyle Burgoon about this and he explained that based on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission‘s data, “drinking from Uranium glassware would result in fairly negligible exposures to uranium – 0.002 mrem/year. That’s about 100x less than the radiation dose per hour flying in an airplane. That’s also 5,000x less than the radiation from a single chest X-ray (EPA)”.
In the case where someone is handling collectible glass (not eating or drinking from it), Dr. Burgoon explains that “they will still only see at most an exposure of 0.2 mrem/year. That’s equivalent to the radiation from a 1-hour plane flight in one year”.
Does Depression Glass Contain Arsenic?
Regardless of if the glass was leaded or unleaded, Arsenic was added to most glass formulas at this time. It was used to reduce the bubbles that formed as the ingredients were being melted, says the National Depression Glass Association.
Although some of it volatilizes out in production, about 50% does remain (source). Only one study looks at Arsenic released by the glass, but this is only showing us the leaching at 121 degrees C, which is hotter than the temperature water boils at. There isn’t much more data to go by. Dr. Burgoon, a Toxicologist, explains that without knowing how much arsenic there is in the glass, and studies or testing to show how much leaches out with normal use, it’s not possible to assess the risk.
Not all Depression glass should be presumed positive for Arsenic, as Tamara’s testing (linked to below) shows a set of clear glassware that didn’t test positive for Arsenic.
You would need to test your glassware with XRF testing to know if it contains Arsenic.
Does Depression Glass Contain Lead?
Lime-soda glass (non-leaded) was used to make most of the dinnerware items in Depression glass. The leaded glass was more often used to make blown items like stemware and vases, says the National Depression Glass Association.
Lead does leach out of glassware. The quantity released depends on the amount of Lead in the glassware, the type of food or beverage used, and the length of time they are in contact with each other (source). Unless you know all three variables for each piece of glassware, it’s not possible to accurately assess the risk, says Dr. Burgoon, Toxicologist.
You would need to test your specific glassware set to know if it’s positive for Lead.
Is Clear Depression Glass Safe to Use?
Tamara Rubin tested a set of clear Depression glasses, which only showed trace Antimony and Cadmium which would be considered safe by all standards to eat off of.
Is Pink Depression Glass Safe to Use?
Pink Depression glass is not one that should be singled out as particularly toxic based on the pink colorant.
Like all Depression glass, it could contain Arsenic, Lead, or other metals. You would need to test it to be sure.
How do You Know if Your Depression Glass Contains Toxic Metals?
To detect Uranium you could put the yellow or green glassware under a UV black light to see if that causes it to glow.
To detect Lead, Arsenic, and other metals you would need to complete XRF testing of the items. Please see this post for more details on how to test items with an XRF analyzer.
Toxicologist Dr. Burgoon concludes that he is “less worried about the Uranium, and more concerned about the unknowns with respect to Arsenic and Lead. Unless someone is willing to do the testing to assess how much Arsenic or Lead is in their glassware, and how their intended use will leach out the metals, and at what rate, there would simply be too much uncertainty for me to be comfortable using it for food use”, he says.
Dr. Burgoon is a trained regulatory toxicologist, risk assessor, and biostatistician. Dr. Burgoon earned his dual Ph.D. in Pharmacology and Toxicology with Environmental Toxicology from Michigan State University.
P.S. Some Alternatives that are Lead Safe!
The following items have been tested by Tamara Rubin and are lead-safe. Click on the image for the link.
Corinne Segura is a Building Biologist Practitioner with 8 years of experience helping others create healthy homes.