This is a guest post by Shannon from Natural Baby Mama. I asked Shannon if she would write a guest post because her extensive testing of lead in household products and materials revealed worrisome levels of lead in products that many presumed were safe.
Her contributions uncovered what companies were not telling us, has brought attention to the issues, and even caused some companies to improve their practices.
This post focuses on common building materials used in new builds and renos that often contain lead and how to test them.
This post contains affiliate links. Upon purchase, I earn a small commission at no extra cost to you.
Why Lead in Household Products is Still a Concern
I began researching the risks of lead when my first child was born, and we were living in an older home. I learned that lead is in many things in our homes: from consumer goods to toys, kitchen products, and building materials.
Lead is a neurotoxin that can cause permanent brain damage in children (Source).
While lead can be found in all types of products today, I’m going to focus on what I’ve learned about lead in building materials. In addition, I’ll share with you how you can test your materials and products for lead.
Disclaimer: These statements are my own opinion and are based on my personal research over the past 8 years. I am not liable or responsible for any outcomes you have based on this article. Please always consult with the proper professionals when seeking guidance and do your own due diligence as well.
I was shocked to find that lead was so prevalent in our old home, and some of our consumer goods, but I was more shocked to learn that lead is still commonly found in new building materials that you can buy off the shelves today.
I became aware of lead being used in building materials after we moved and did a non-toxic remodel. There was no easy way to get an answer if a product had lead. At that time, I reached out to companies to find out if their product was lead-free. Several companies responded back in writing that they were.
Later, I tested these items and found they had lead. I realized then that I needed to personally test materials and products.
Over the past 8 years, I have tested many hundreds of items for lead using an XRF analyzer. This has included building materials and many other household products and consumer goods.
For more information on how people are being lead poisoned today and how to test yourself for lead exposure, please see my post Lead Poisoning and Prevention Strategies.
How to Test Building Materials for Lead
There are two primary ways to test for lead, 3M LeadCheck Swabs and XRF testing.
3M LeadCheck Swabs
3M LeadCheck Swabs are a great tool to use to test a variety of materials. They work best for paint, lead dust, or on scored or broken materials.
3M LeadCheck Swabs are designed to detect down to 600 ppm (parts per million) of lead. That means you might not get a positive reading if your item is less than 600 ppm. The allowable limit for lead in children’s items is 90 ppm, to put this in perspective.
3M LeadCheck Swabs are not intended for testing items that fall outside of their testing capability.
For example, if you use a LeadCheck Swab on your cookware with a lead-free glaze, you will most likely get a negative reading. The swabs need to have direct contact with lead to work properly.
If you test paint with a LeadCheck Swab, it is only testing what it comes in contact with. So if you have lead paint under 3 layers of new paint, a swab will not be able to identify the lead paint layers below.
Similarly, with ceramic tile if the lead is under the glaze it will not pick it up. (Sometimes the lead is in the glaze layer and sometimes it’s underneath).
3M recommends scoring your product to test so that you can reach the inner layers. I personally do not score or scrape lead paint as I do not want to create lead dust.
If you break a product, like tile, to get access to the inner layers you potentially will exposure yourself and your environment to lead dust. If you have cracking tile with dust you might be able to use a lead swab.
With LeadCheck Swabs, if you get a positive reading that is indicative of leachable lead.
3M details how to use their swabs on their website, please reference it before you use their product for accurate results.
Where To Buy
The vast majority of my testing has been done using an XRF Analyzer.
Handheld XRF machines are highly calibrated precision instruments used to accurately detect lead and other elements (including other heavy metals).
Trained professionals typically operate them. However, some places will rent to individuals.
I have had a lot of experience seeing an XRF in use and have been trained on how to use the XRF from the company I rented from; however, I am not professionally trained or certified to use the XRF.
What To Look For in an XRF Analyzer
There are several types of XRF machines available and multiple brands. I used a Niton with consumer goods mode which tests in parts per million.
Consumer goods mode (the ability to test consumer goods, as opposed to say soil or other materials) and the ability to test in ppm are both extremely important if you are considering renting a machine.
In my opinion, if you test in other modes or increments you may not get accurate readings. I personally would not pay for testing if I couldn’t get readings in ppm.
Safety of XRF Machines
There are two types of XRF machines on the market: Radioactive and Non-Radioactive.
- Non-Radioactive XRF: The Niton XRF I have rented is non-radioactive but it does use x-ray technology to test. As we all know, x-rays emit radiation. Each test is under a minute. Per Niton, using their non-radioactive XRF equals approximately one medical or dental x-ray.(Niton used to have a reference of how many hours of use would equal approximately one medical x-ray but that information is no longer on their website). I personally have stopped testing items using an XRF due to my concerns over the exposure to x-ray radiation. Some knowledge of how to use the tool safely and accurately is needed and this article is not intended to provide that training.
- Radioactive XRF: This machine is radioactive and requires special training and protective gear to use. This is not something you would ever rent. Most professionals you would hire to test do not use the radioactive XRF, but it’s always a good idea to confirm.
How to Rent an XRF
Renting an XRF is quite expensive. A 24-hour rental is in the $400 range.
To find a place that rents an XRF for personal use, I would use Google and search XRF rental. I have previously rented from Pine Environmental.
To hire someone to come out to test costs a little less than renting one yourself. Depending on who it is and where you are located, it could be $100-200 for a few hours.
Those operating a XRF analyzer should be fully versed in its uses, limitations and risks. This article does not cover the training needed to operate this machine, and should not be taken as an endorsement of using one without training.
Lead in Building Products
For all the materials below, I would typically test with an XRF analyzer. A LeadCheck Swab may or may not work properly on these materials since direct lead contact is needed for swabs to work.
When I know there could potentially be direct lead contact then I use a swab.
It’s important to note that just because a product contains lead, it does not always mean that it will leach lead and cause harm to your family. However, it might and that is the reason to be lead aware.
The products I discuss below are the ones I have found to have lead. I’ve tested products in a variety of price ranges and from a variety of stores. If something is expensive or not, it does not lessen the chance that lead was used in the manufacturing.
This is not a comprehensive list of all products that contain lead, nor do all products listed here always contain lead. This is based on external research and studies, as well as personal testing by me, Shannon.
In the United States, if your faucets were purchased prior to 2014 they likely contain lead.
New faucets that are used for drinking water (kitchen or bathroom sink) are now “lead-free” due to the 2014 Safe Drinking Water ACT. Note, lead-free does allow for up to 0.25% weighted average of lead. This level considered safe and personally is not a concern for me.
A tub faucet, for example, is not required to be lead-free but you can find lead-free options.
Look for faucets that are using internal components made of lead-free brass.
If you are concerned about lead in your kitchen faucet and your water, you can easily test your drinking water for lead. Most major cities have water quality testing labs. Google your city and water testing. Testing is fast and relatively inexpensive.
There are also labs that you can mail a water sample to like National Testing Laboratories. Return shipping is not included so calculate that into your testing cost (I paid $60 to return my comprehensive water test to them).
If you find that you have lead in your water a simple solution may be switching out your faucet and getting a good quality water filter. After doing those steps, test your water again.
Many lighting fixtures contain lead. Often the lead is in the wiring but it can also be in the glass or in the housing. When installing I would recommend wearing gloves, then dispose of the gloves after.
As a note, this also applies to stand-alone lighting (floor or desk lamps). We tested some new bedside lamps that came back with high levels of lead.
Lamps that you touch regularly could be tested for lead. Avoid brass.
Some bathtubs may contain lead, especially porcelain-coated cast iron or steel tubs.
Generally, it is older bathtubs that have lead in the porcelain coating. As the coating erodes over time, or if there are any chips or cracks, lead can leach into the bathwater. This can be a source of lead poisoning.
I personally buy stainless steel kitchen sinks because porcelain in general can have lead.
I have not personally tested kitchen sinks but I had a company confirm that there was lead in one particular porcelain sink I was interested in. The same company had a lead free porcelain bathroom sink.
See above under bathtubs for additional information on porcelain.
Generally, brass has lead. I’ve tested brass that is in the 50,000 ppm range but there are various ranges of lead in brass. Lead-free brass is available but it is more expensive and rare.
Brass can be used in many household items and is often used as the underlayer with a coating on top. If a non-leaded coating is intact the lead is (generally) contained.
An example could be a satin-finished drawer handle or your lighting fixtures.
Doorknobs can contain lead. This is either due to brass being used or older leaded crystal knobs. Many doorknobs are also lead-free!
Stick with stainless steel if possible. From what I have tested, plated nickel is often lead-free, though not always. Oil rubbed bronze is considered a living finish and will rub off exposing the leaded brass underneath (if that is used).
Ceramic tile is the most common household tile and is by far the most likely to have lead. In fact, finding lead-free ceramic tile can be challenging. Porcelain tile is a type of ceramic tile.
To find lead free tile, you can reach out to the company specifically to ask if they have tested for lead and request to see their test report.
Unfortunately, I have multiple experiences where a company stated their tile was lead-free, and when I tested the tile it had lead. The tiles I have tested has been in the range of 200 ppm to over 1,000 ppm of lead.
Another thing to mention about tile is that many have antimicrobials properties added to them.
How To Test Your Tile
In my experience, any lead-free glazes on a tile would create a barrier that would prevent a 3M LeadCheck swab from being positive if there was lead in the tile. Lead can be found in the glaze of tile or it could be under a clear, lead-free glaze.
I don’t recommend breaking tile and creating potential lead dust just for the sake of testing.
You may be able to use swabs on the bottom of a new piece of tile. These are typically left unglazed.
The LeadCheck Swabs test down to 600 ppm lead, if the tile was below that range you would get a negative on the swab.
If you want to know if a tile has lead or not, a good way to test is with an XRF tool. Another option would be going with the assumption that your tile has lead and proceeding with lead-safe practices.
It’s Corinne interjecting – this e-booklet is the XRF lead testing results from 64 tiles in 2021.
I show the results for each tile with a photo and link to where to buy the tile.
If you buy the same tile from the same year it’s reasonable to conclude that the test results would be similar or the same.
I would still take precautions with the dust but personally, I would feel better about going with a tile that tested well.
If that is not possible there is also one brand that stands out in the study as holding up to their claims.
You can get the e-book here on Etsy.
How To Install or Remove Tile In Your Home
The risk for lead exposure comes from removing your existing tile and cutting tile.
First, I would decide if removing the tile is worth it for you. If you are doing a remodel that involves removing tile you risk contaminating your entire home with lead dust if you don’t handle it properly.
This risk extends beyond tile if you live in an older home with other lead concerns.
If you proceed with removing tile, I would follow lead containment protocols in the work area and seek out the advice of lead containment professionals.
You can buy 3M lead wipes and I personally would test the dust in your home before and after your remodel.
- Always wet cut your tile. Never allow anyone to dry cut.
- Always cut outside and away from your home, never inside your home.
- Have workers remove shoes or put on booties before coming into your home.
- Plastic off walkways to the area they are working in.
These are some simple steps to reduce your lead exposure in building materials and during remodels. I hope you have found this information helpful in guiding you to make your home healthy.
About Natural Baby Mama
My name is Shannon, and I am a natural living blogger that focuses on non-toxic living for the entire family. As I’ve navigated the non-toxic living world, I’ve researched everything from kitchen items, toys, clothes, building materials, and everything in between. You can find more information on the Natural Baby Mama website.