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.
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.
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.