In 2021, I tested 64 ceramic and porcelain tiles for lead. They were selected from 5 major vendors in the US and were tested with a handheld x-ray fluorescence (XRF) analyzer by a qualified professional.
The tiles were purchased from Flooring Inc, Stone Tile Depot, Build Direct, The Tile Shop, and Home Depot.
While there are no official limits on the limits of lead in tile in the US, I used a couple of benchmarks to help me make sense of the results.
The first is the level of lead in paint that qualifies it as “lead-containing paint”. That is 1.0 mg/cm2. 3% of the tiles came in well above this level.
The next benchmark I used is is 0.1 mg/cm2 (I actually used 0.09 since one tile came in that close to 0.1). This level of lead in mg/cm2 could still indicate a level of 500 (or more) parts per million (ppm) of lead.
How did I choose this level that I consider to be above trace? Soil contains 50-400 ppm lead naturally (so that can be considered to be trace, source here). So this second tier level could be called above trace. The significance of this lead level very much depends on how much dust was actually created, especially inside the house.
Two tiles came in well above the threshold for leaded paint (the threshold is 1 mg/cm2): a multi bright blue scallop design that was glossy from a big box store came in at 3.3 mg/cm2. And a dark blue glossy from a lessor known online retailer came in at 2.8 mg/cm2.
Six more tiles came in tested between 0.1 and 1 mg/cm2 (the “above trace”):
These tiles were:
- 0.11 mg/cm2 – A Linear Mosaic Dark Gray from a major brand
- 0.09 mg/cm2 (close to 0.1) – Lantern White from a major brand
- 0.1 mg/cm2 – Subway Tiles in Light Blue from a major big box store
- 0.23 mg/cm2 – Soft Pink Tiles from a more boutique shop
- 0.14 mg/cm2 – Hexagon Light Blue a more boutique shop
- 0.13 mg/cm2 – Matte Light Blue Subway Tile from an online retailer
The rest of the tiles tested “trace” or no lead (“no lead” as measured down to 0.00 mg/cm2, ‘trace’ were 0.06 mg/cm2 or lower).
Note that clay can naturally contain lead so I did test both the front and back. The backs of tiles had anywhere from 0.00 mg/cm2 to 0.06 mg/cm2. Most of the tiles tested 0.00, and a large number were in the 0.01 – 0.02 mg/cm2 range. So lead was not as big concern of a concern in the clay backing.
We know that bright colors are certainly more likely to contain lead, for this reason, I didn’t test any bright reds. I was surprised at how many blue tiles contained lead. I would be very cautious with blue and red tiles (and other bright colors) even if they are made in America, come from a big brand, well-known brand, or are sold at mainstream stores.
How Does this Compare to Previous Results?
The amount of lead used in tile glaze has certainly been going down over time. Heavy metal content in US ceramic floor and tile dropped by 93.6% between 2002 and 2012 (Healthy Building Network).
In 2010, the Ecology Center tested 39 ceramic tiles for sale at Home Depot and Lowes. They found that 74 percent of the tiles contained detectable lead, with levels as high as 1,900 parts per million. (However, “detectable” here could mean anything above 0 ppm). (The Ecology Center)
Why Should We Care about Lead in Tiles?
While lead in tiles is not considered a risk when the tiles are in place (unless it’s a tiled countertop, island, or table that you are putting food on), the dust produced when cutting or demolishing the tiles could easily produce a lead risk.
Just as we are concerned about chipping and flaking paint, in my opinion, we should be just as careful with a product that is installed and demolished in a way that produces a lot of dust.
Contractors are rarely careful with this dust. It is reasonable to choose to take lead remediation level precautions with all tile dust, however, that is impractical in the real world that contractors and homeowners live in.
And also, why are we accepting the tiles that will have lead in the glaze when it’s not necessary?
Brands of Lead Free Tiles
Daltile In my testing, four Daltile tiles, including a dark blue came in at trace or no lead, with no Daltile tiles coming in above trace (though not as many were tested as some other brands). Daltile has a very explicit policy on lead in which they claim only their red colors contain lead. They are made in the USA. They do have some tiles that contain Microban; Microban in this instance likely refers to nanosilver.
Fire Clay tiles are handmade in California. All of their 150 glazes are 100% lead-free, they say on their Health Product Declaration (down to 100 ppm, self prepared, not third party verified). They say that in 1988, Fireclay Tile was the first tile company to introduce 100% lead-free glazes into their product line.
Crossville tiles are also made in America. They provide a lot of transparency regarding ingredient disclosure. They provide an Environmental Declaration (EPD), Declare Label down to 100 ppm and red list free, and lead is on the red list (and lead is not listed as an ingredient down to 100 ppm), and a Health Product Declaration (HPD) for all colors down to 100 ppm with residuals considered. Lead is not listed.
Porcelanosa is a Spanish company that has international dealers. They state that “the tile glazes do not contain any heavy metals like lead or cadmium. This means that their vitreous surface is totally inert. Porcelanosa tiles have heavy metal emission values far below the established limit for food-grade ceramic tiles.”
Clayhaus Tile, a company based out of Oregon state, hand makes their tiles in the US. They state that Clayhaus ceramic tiles use lead-free glazes.