Lead in Ceramics

by / Friday, 25 October 2013 / Published in Environmental Testing
lead in ceramics

Recently I was helping a client select ceramic tiles in her new home, and my initial instinct was to approve all the tiles as “healthy” without much research into their contents. I couldn’t imagine there would be any toxicity issues with lead in ceramics.

Wasn’t Lead Banned in Ceramics Along with Paints?

After reading that one of her manufacturers used only 100% lead-free glazes, my client emailed me. She asked, is this something we should be worried about? My initial reaction was to say, no, there is nothing to worry about. I thought the tile manufacturer was stating the obvious, and it was like a paint manufacturer saying there is no lead in their paints—it’s a given since lead was banned in the 1970s.

lead in ceramics

Testing the flower pattern on a reusable coffee mug purchased through Facebook Gifts. The XFR scanner we used at The Center for Environmental Health cannot detect whether the elements are found on the surface of the mug or beneath the glaze

Before writing a quick email back, I did a little research. It seemed my question—was lead banned in ceramics when it was banned in paints?—was not as easy to answer as I had anticipated. I read in some places that only imported ceramics are a problem, but U.S.-manufactured tiles do not contain lead. I also read that lead in ceramics was not covered in the lead ban because in ceramic glazes, lead is (theoretically) contained within the hardened surface of the glaze and not a risk to users.

It took some time to find, but I finally located the text of the Consumer Product Safety Act, Part 1303: Ban Of Lead-Containing Paint And Certain Consumer Products Bearing Lead-Containing Paint and saw the following (emphasis mine):

(a) In this part 1303, the Consumer Product Safety Commission declares that paint and similar surface-coating materials for consumer use that contain lead or lead compounds and in which the lead content (calculated as lead metal) is in excess of 0.06 percent (0.06 percent is reduced to 0.009 percent effective August 14, 2009 as mandated by Congress in section 101(f) of the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008, Pub. L. 110-314) of the weight of the total nonvolatile content of the paint or the weight of the dried paint film (which paint and similar surface-coating materials are referred to hereafter as “lead-containing paint”) are banned hazardous products under sections 8 and 9 of the Consumer Product Safety Act (CPSA), 15 U.S.C. 2057, 2058.

And what defines a “paint and similar surface coating material,” according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission? From the Office of Compliance Ban of Lead-Containing Paint and Certain Consumer Products Bearing Lead-Containing Paint:

Materials such as ceramic glaze which become bonded to the surface of a product are not paints or similar surface coating materials.

Lead in Ceramic Glazes

Though lead was banned in paints in the 1970s, it is still allowed in ceramic glazes. I called every ceramic tile manufacturer to confirm that the tiles we chose did not contain lead. Fortunately, my experience was that manufacturers were very accommodating to information requests. Even manufacturers that do use lead were generally transparent about the specific glazes that were affected.

lead in ceramics

The flower pattern on the coffee mug registered high levels of lead (Pb- 528 ppm) and chromium (Cr- 246 ppm)

That said, some customer service representatives weren’t aware of the problem, or they assumed lead in ceramics were banned along with paints in the 1970s. Unless a manufacturer can provide written confirmation that they use lead-free glazes, don’t assume all customer service representatives are aware of the details. Especially if you are using brightly-colored or metallic glazed tiles, be sure to ask for confirmation that there is no lead in the product.

In case you are planning to renovate a tile bathroom or kitchen in the near future, it is a good idea to make sure any demolition dust that may contain lead residues from the ceramic tile glazes is handled properly. If you are in the Bay Area and would like to test your ceramic tiles (or ceramic dinnerware, or children’s toys, or jewelry, for that matter) for lead, make an appointment at The Center for Environmental Health in Oakland, and they will test lead in ceramics using their XFR scanner.

15 Responses to “Lead in Ceramics”

  1. Alex Stadtner says :

    Hopefully your new crock pot doesn’t contain lead. You should have it tested if there’s any doubt. The crystals and white powders are likely just a result of water evaporating and the vapor carrying baking soda coalescing wherever there were air gaps. I wouldn’t panic about the white crystals, but if you think your new crock might have lead it’s worth having it professionally tested by a lead inspector.

  2. Barbara says :

    I recently bought a crock with a turquoise glaze. Because it had an unpleasant odor, I put a considerable quantity of baking soda dissolved in warm water into it and left it to soak over night. Awhile after emptying the water, I began to see white crystals appearing on the outside of the jar and on the top of the ‘lip’ at the opening. What could cause this? At first it was more powdery but now the crystalline nature at the top of the jar is pronounced. Could this be lead leaching out of the glaze?

  3. Alex Stadtner says :

    Yes. Anything may contain lead. If you have concerns it’s best to have it professionally tested for lead. If it’s new it’s less likely to contain lead, but it’s still possible.

  4. Michele says :

    I have a tea / luncheon set that is stamped ‘Made in Japan’. Do you know if it might contain lead?

  5. Alex Stadtner says :

    The specific methods of testing requirements vary state by state. In California, you’d have to hire a Lead Inspector/Assessor to test each material. Conversely, you may just treat it all like hazardous waste and probably take it to a local hazardous waste disposal center. Use caution and hire a professional if you have any questions. I would not suggest you trust any DIY testing methods unless you’re a certified Lead Inspector yourself. You should assume that everything contains lead until you (or someone else) can confirm it doesn’t. Play safe. Lead is no joke.

  6. Matt Cornwell says :

    One of our high schools is requesting to clean out their storage of old pottery and ceramics supplies. How do I tell what is hazardous, and what can be disposed of in the normal stream? I have the small “lead in paint” testers that you wipe on a surface. Would those work? I have not gotten a response from our local government hazardous waste collectors, yet. Some of it is dried in the container.The current, new teacher thinks that there was a teacher mixing his/her own glazes at one point.

  7. Alex Stadtner says :

    It depends on the tiles, their condition, and what surface they are on.
    Generally, unless a lead-based finish is pealing, flaking, chipping or chalking there isn’t much risk from a wall tile.
    If you had children and there were concern about hand-to-mouth exposure than any floor tile could pose a problem.
    Lead testing isn’t usually that expensive and if you have any doubt I would suggest you get the building tested.
    There are disclosure requirements in most states and you may learn more about the history and past inspections performed on the building when you start down the road of purchasing a home.

  8. Lee says :

    Would you recommend testing the tiles in any home I’m considering buying? Can the lead become airborne even if I don’t do any renovation and the tiles are in good condition?

  9. Alex Stadtner says :

    How very interesting.

  10. SRC says :

    The photo of the XRF readout says the Cl content is 15%, suggesting PVC. If this is correct, you are looking at a decoration on the mug that is a polymer containing PVC, not a ceramic glaze.

  11. […] own experts, etc. Meanwhile, I did find this 2014 research from the Pharos Project illuminating … this company in 2013 shared its experience searching for tile free of all lead glaze … and I see that some manufacturers provide Lead-Free Certification Letters, for […]

  12. […] own experts, etc. Meanwhile, I did find this 2014 research from the Pharos Project illuminating … this company in 2013 shared its experience searching for tile free of all lead glaze … and I see that some manufacturers provide Lead-Free Certification Letters, for […]

  13. Hi Forest,

    Lead is only regulated to in consumer paints, but it was not banned. That means lead can show up in lots of products we purchase every day (not to mention in industrial paints) without it being illegal. In the state of California, lead is on Prop 65, so products that contain lead are required to be labeled. Unfortunately, often they are not.

    This is yet another example of why we need stronger regulations in this country around toxics!

    Thanks for your comment,


  14. Alex Stadtner says :

    Hi Forest,
    Yes and no. About 5 years ago we purchased some new ceramic bowls from a Japanese shop in San Francisco. It turns out they contained lead.
    Likewise, we had a whole bunch of kids toys laying around. Some were new, others were old, but none looked like they were from before the 80s. Sure enough, about a 3rd of the toys were painted with lead-based paint.
    Point is you just cannot know unless a product is third-party certified or otherwise tested.
    Perhaps Melanie will share more later next week.
    Thanks for the note,

  15. Forest says :

    thank you – like you said, lead was banned a long time ago, right?

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