Understanding potential lead hazards in old porcelain enamel bathtubs and sinks and ceramic tile of any age

Be-Safe-graphic-500-wV2Lead hazards have been in the news all year, and that will continue for some time. So, owners of older homes have been and will continue getting even more reminders that they should pay attention to the risks, particularly if they have younger children. Of course, we all knew about the dangers of lead paint – and now we all are attuned to the potential for lead in old pipes, as our hearts go out to the people of Flint and as concerns spread to other communities.

This article focuses on raising awareness around three other potential sources of lead dust exposure in your home – old porcelain enamel bathtubs and sinks and ceramic tile of any era — and steps you can take to assess and, if required, address them. 

Doing research recently, I ran into information about these products that I had not known about and which old-house owners will likely also want to understand, namely: the potential for lead glazing and binders that may have been used on some old porcelain bathtubs and sinks and on some ceramic tile of any era to become worn or degraded, which can result in surface lead dust that can be ingested by children. These products should also be assessed for lead when planning for installation, maintenance, repairs and renovation.

This issue is not a new one, with occasional media coverage going back at least 20 years. By now, I presume it is well-known among licensed lead assessors and lead inspectors, contractors in conformance with worker safety requirements, state health departments, and to be sure, the bathtub reglazing industry.

If you are the owner of a home that includes these products, I want to let you know about the issue so that you can consult with your own experts so that you can make informed decisions how to handle.

A note on terminology: I have seen the terms “Porcelain Enamel”, “Enamel”, and “Porcelain” each used to describe the top coating that is baked onto metal substrates on bathtubs, sinks and other products. As such, you may see the various terms used interchangeably on this blog by me and by others who are interviewed or commenting. To verify what types of products you have and what they are made of, do your own research including consulting with the original manufacturer or your own professionals.

Important disclaimer: I am not an expert on these issues; for this story I worked to gather information from authoritative sources in order to help raise readers’ awareness. The story may not cover every issue; and I as summarized information aiming for readability, I cannot guarantee I said everything just right. So please, do not depend solely on the information provided here. My #1 recommendation: Get with your own your own properly licensed professionals to assess the situation in your home; the Centers for Disease Control in particular pointed to working with local public health officials or a licensed Lead Risk Assessor.

What tubs and sinks are affected?

Good Morning America first reported on the bathtub issue in 1995 after a study found that the finishes on old bathtubs that had used lead glazes and binders could wear down to the point that lead dust could be picked up on the surface. I found two studies online that aimed to survey the range of tubs that could be affected: this one, which seems to be from the original 1995 study, [<<update 3/19 original link gone but found on archive.org] and this 2004 one from The Vermont Housing & Conservation Board (VHCB).

I contacted the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and they explained, “They [the surfaces of old tubs] degrade when cleaned with abrasive cleaners as well as when the surface ages. Many of these tubs are very old.” The Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) agreed, “Old porcelain finished tubs may have lead containing glazes; lead may leach from the glaze or from the cast iron tub. Sometimes lead can come from old plumbing in the home.” The worn surfaces on lead-glazed porcelain sinks could present similar hazards, the Vermont Board pointed out.

The Good Morning America report said that by 1995, the manufacturers of porcelain bathtubs they contacted had all discontinued using lead in their glazes or were about to end the practice.

I do not know the timeline for lead glazes and binders on porcelain enamel bathroom and kitchen sinks. I also do not know whether porcelain-glazed tubs and sinks, if imported today or available from newer manufacturers, may contain lead in their glazes and binders. Readers, get with your own professionals / ask manufacturers on these issues.

Effects of this potential lead dust

In bathtubs with degraded surfaces that test positive for lead, the 1995 report said, children could ingest the dust when they touch the glaze and then put their fingers in their mouths, or if, when bathing, they drink the bath water or put wet objects or fingers in their mouths. The worn surfaces on lead-glazed porcelain sinks could present similar hazards, the Vermont Board pointed out.

According to the CDC, “We do not have data on lead poisoning attributed to use of the old tubs, but there are a few case reports. All sources of lead in children’s environments should be controlled or eliminated.”

When I asked about ‘work-arounds’ I had seen recommended in other stories online, such as putting your child in a basin set in the tub, the agency responded with the following 89-word “no”:

“No safe blood lead level in children has been identified. Even low levels of lead in blood have been shown to affect IQ, ability to pay attention, and academic achievement. And effects of lead exposure cannot be corrected.

“The goal is to prevent lead exposure to children before they are harmed. There are many ways parents can reduce a child’s exposure to lead. The most important is stopping children from coming into contact with lead. Lead hazards in a child’s environment must be identified and controlled or removed safely.”

On its website, the CDC also warns that lead exposure can be dangerous to pregnant and lactating women.

I asked the CDC what else is important for parents and caregivers to know about this issue. They replied:

“Lead-contaminated house dust is the primary high dose source of lead in U.S. children’s environments. Children living in pre-1978 housing with peeling paint or undergoing renovation should be tested for lead.”

Testing your tubs and sinks

Discussing bathtubs, the CDC said, “Lead check swabs could be used to check for this issue. These swabs are colorimetric tests that turn pink if there is lead on the surface. Parents and others should check paint, house dust, and soil as well as bathtubs and discuss a remediation plan with local public health officials or a licensed lead risk assessor.”

If homeowners are working with a Lead Assessor or Lead Inspector, the agency said, “Parents and others should ask to be sure the tub is tested.” [Implicitly: sinks and tile, too.]

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency contributed more information about the role of lead assessors and lead inspectors in the detection process. (Their statement includes a discussion of possible lead-containing ceramic tile, discussed further down in this story.) The agency said, “Surface abrading and demolition activities such as breaking or crushing lead-containing ceramic tile may release lead. For this reason, some inspectors and risk assessors include ceramic tile and bathtubs in pre-rehabilitation inspections/risk assessments. Typically, lead inspectors and risk assessors are not required to test bathtubs when conducting an inspection or risk assessment, but they are able to do so upon request. If a homeowner wants to know if the bathtub contains lead, he or she can hire a certified inspector or risk assessor and ask specifically for the bathtub to be tested.” [Implicitly: sinks and tile, too.]

It is my understanding that Lead Assessors and Lead Inspectors also have access to additional, more sophisticated and reliable tools to do testing.

One fix: Resurfacing

The fix if your tub or sink shows positive for lead? “It is possible to have these tubs resurfaced,” the CDC said. The CPSC said, “A consumer can re-glaze a porcelain tub with epoxy paint,” and said that it regulates such DIY painting and prep products under the FHSA; of course, be sure to follow the safety directions if you go this route.  And whether you use a professional firm or DIY, it seems you should prepare to gear up for more research – note, for example, this article about hazards related to bathtub refinishing on the CDC website.

Again: “Parents and others should … discuss a remediation plan with local public health officials or a licensed lead risk assessor,” the CDC advised.

Potential lead dust hazards in ceramic tile

The CDC also confirmed that old tile floors that may have used lead in their original glazing could pose the same sort of lead dust hazard. “Old tile floors where the surfaces have been abraded by use and cleaning products contribute to lead in house dust. If the surface is in poor condition, it should be resurfaced, covered, or replaced,” the agency said.

People with ceramic tile on their countertops also will want to be cognizant of this issue.

I do not have information on how best to test for possible lead dust on the surface of tile. Readers, get with your own professionals on this issue.

Lead glazes may still be found in newer tile, too:
My subsequent research online indicated that lead glazes may still be used on ceramic tile to this day. The American Healthy Homes Survey published in 2011 by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) includes information on lead-glazed ceramic tile found in homes built after 1977. I contacted the Tile Council of North America to see if they could provide a current status of regulation or standards, and while they were responsive, they said that, “due to the complexity of the subject, we do not have the staff available to appropriately address the topic in the time allotted.” Readers, I do not plan on pursuing any additional research on the subject, so please do your own research, get with your 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 example.

Very important:
Remember to work Lead-Safe during installation, maintenance, repair and renovation of all these products

The CPSC also said that homeowners should be cautious before undertaking installation, maintenance, repair or renovation: “Dust from these products, if they are indeed found to contain lead, also could pose a lead dust hazard when removed, added or disturbed during home maintenance, remodeling or demolition.”

HUD’s 2012 Guidelines for the Evaluation and Control of Lead-Based Paint Hazards in Housing (Chapter 5, Section C.2), agreed: “Many risk assessors routinely test non-paint items for lead content when they conduct risk assessments. Ceramic tile, and ceramic bath fixtures are sometimes tested because they may be a source of lead exposure during demolition or renovation. Lead-containing ceramic tile or bath fixtures are not a common cause for childhood lead poisoning. However, demolition activities such as breaking or crushing them may release lead.”

The CPSC said, “It is best for consumers to reach out to the EPA to get information on renovation and how to best approach the issue depending on the age of the home and the different scenarios that might present themselves during the project.” The agency also pointed to the EPA’s Lead-Safe Certified Guide to Renovating Right.

Preserving the finish on your porcelain tubs, sinks and tile

Even if your tubs, sinks or tile do not test positive for lead dust, this story makes it pretty clear why you should follow manufacturers’ care and cleaning recommendations.

Get with an expert

On this story, I am not opening Comments. I am not an expert, so I can’t answer questions, and I don’t want folks offering advice that may not be expert. Please: Get with your own properly licensed professionals to answer any further questions you may have and to assess this situation – and about other lead hazards that continue to be in the news — as they relate to your own home. The government agencies I contacted all were responsive to my questions, and state and local public health agencies also are involved in lead poisoning prevention activities — these are additional places you can to turn to if you have additional questions or concerns.

More information – including other places in the home to test for lead: