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I’m posting this long correspondence because it has many links from this reader about lead in ceramic tile and various concerns.

The bottom line is: there seems to be a lot of lead in virtually all ceramic tile. It may pose a dust hazard when cutting, but is not a toxic exposure when touched or mounted on the wall. It does not emit lead into the air.

Question from Victoria

Hi Debra,

Hoping you can help us!

We have a question regarding ceramic versus marble tile. Hoping you can provide us with your thoughts!

My husband and I are planning on installing our kitchen backsplash this weekend.

We were hoping to choose plain white, made-in-the-USA 3×6 subway tile:

We had specifically chosen the manufacturer Daltile based on their “Lead free certification” letter from 2013 found on their website:

We have a lot of backsplash to install, from countertop to ceiling. The area around two large corner windows will require a SIGNIFICANT amount of cutting the tile to size, so we are very concerned about tile dust/debris generated while cutting the tile.

We felt confident choosing Daltile because they claim to not add any lead to their tile. Although they advise, by nature, there may be trace amounts. This “lead-free” claim is important to us as we have a toddler and we are currently trying to get pregnant.

However, upon further research, we came across a 2015 article from the Envionmental Information Association regarding problems associated with lead-testing ceramic tiles. Therefore they conclude it reasonable to assume all ceramic tiles have high levels of lead, if they are to be disturbed/cut.

In addition, Lead Safe America foundation advises to avoid choosing man-made ceramic tile.

We are now concerned about using ceramic tile and are leaning towards using marble tile. We cannot seem to find any info online regarding lead/heavy metals/contaminants, etc in marble tile (although surely there must be at least trace amounts?..)

Do you know if marble would be a better, safer choice? Especially when having to cut and install significant quantities of tile?
Or would the subway tile in question be just as safe? We really want to pick the safest option for our toddler.

Please let us know your thoughts!

Thank you kindly for you help! 🙂

Debra’s Answer

Here are my thoughts.

First we live in a world where nothing is 100% without some toxic element. So it’s like fire or crossing the street. We do things to minimize risk.

In the past I and many others have considered manmade ceramic tile “safe” because it doesn’t outgas anything. Now that we are also considering heavy metal exposure we find that ceramic tile MAY contain lead.

So if Daltile says they do not add lead, then the only lead in that tile is whatever lead is occurring in the raw materials. Lead is an element of the earth. It cannot be eliminated 100%. So our challenge is to eliminate ADDED lead.

The Lead Safe America post seems to me to be saying that the biggest concern is from demolition and cutting, NOT from having the tile on a backsplash.

This tile will NOT emit lead into the room.

So it would be fine to install on a backsplash. I would CUT it outdoors. You don’t want to create dust from cutting indoors.

Note that her recommendations say don’t put food on the tile (which would absorb into the food and then you would eat it), use plates, etc, but she does NOT say do not touch the tile. Skin contact apparently is not a problem. I’ve seen this from other sources as well. So it’s OK to touch the tile.

Just as an aside, my whole kitchen and bathroom has this tile up all the walls 8 feet.

The conclusion seems to be that we should assume all manmade tiles contain lead. But as I outlined above, just because they contain lead doesn’t mean they cannot be used safely.

Marble is a natural material. It is not manufactured. Therefore lead would not be added, but it would contain any trace amounts of lead that occur naturally.

I would pick either and cut it in an area away from your toddler, where the dust would not go throughout the house via your HVAC.

Victoria’s Reply

Hi Debra,

Thank you so much for your reply! Your information and advice is greatly appreciated!!!

My concern is not the tile itself, but of the dust/debris generated when cutting large amounts of tile.

My hubby will cut the tile in the backyard, but even then, I worry about the tile debris/dust accumulating, possibly even contaminating, the deck, the playsets, the grass and soil my toddler plays in. Not to mention hubby’s clothing, dog paws, wind, etc, dragging it inside. I understand it doesn’t take very much lead to dust to contaminate an area.

This construction forum thread regarding lead in tile provided some interesting info:

“One contractor I followed actually ripped out old tile that didn’t have lead in them and installed tiles that did have lead in them.

I checked where he dump the water from the tile saw and the soil was way over the clearance levels for lead content.

Dry cutting with a grinder produced the same results.”

The same forum thread mentioned an amazing field report that provided a lot of interesting information

“The tile installer needs to take precautions to avoid the toxic effects of the lead and he needs to be sure that he does not carry tile dust home on his clothes or in his truck. Bob Knowles, a professional lead risk assessor, made the importance of this clear to me. On several occasions, the New Mexico Health Department asked him to trace down the source of lead that was causing elevated levels of blood to show up in school children. In some of these cases, he verified that the lead was coming from the professional activities of these children’s parent or parents who were tile installers. The tile dust was in their pick-up trucks and it was on the clothes, which they were wearing home. The pick-up trucks were used as work vehicles and for family transportation.”

Although Daltile provides a 2013 letter on their website that advises that they do not add lead to their glaze, I am still somewhat concerned about cutting and installing ceramic tile because they advise the tile may still contain lead. Im not concerned about the tile once it is installed.

So I was thinking maybe it’s best we cut and install marble instead of ceramic tile, just for peace of mind, because I can’t seem to find anything online that mentions lead in marble as a concern (unlike ceramic tile)

I would not be concerned about lead dust from tile cutting and installation if we didn’t have a toddler/still breastfeeding/potential pregnancy, as you know the effects of lead exposure are scarily irreversible, and even low levels of lead in the young body have been shown to affect IQ. Terrifying! 🙁

Although as you mention we live in a world where nothing is 100% without some toxic element… I just wish we lived in a world where us humans were more responsible about minimizing risk and took more care to ensure not only our safety, but the safety of the next generation(s) *sigh*!

That’s why I’m so appreciative of your website, blog and the work that you do, spreading important information and knowledge to everyone. Thanks so much for doing the amazing work that you do!! 🙂

Kind regards,

Victoria & family

Debra’s Answer

Considering all of the above and your concerns, I agree that your best choice is marble.

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