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My husband and I are also renovating our front door entry, kitchen, bathrooms and laundry room floors long with our hardwood floors in our home. We are putting in porcelain tiles in these areas. Is ceramic or porcelain tile flooring toxic? What should I look for in ceramic or porcelain tile flooring? A contractor doesn’t necessarily tell you where the tile is from, what adhesives and grout they are using for the project. In my experience, I was only given the tile options with different color, design and price and was asked to select the tile. However, I felt that I wanted to know if the materials that will be installed and used at our home are non toxic. Therefore, I decided to do the research on my own what non toxic option I have in ceramic or porcelain tile flooring. In this post, I share with you what to look for when selecting ceramic or porcelain tile flooring and what non toxic ceramic or porcelain tile flooring options are available.
Ceramic VS Porcelain
When my husband and I were choosing tiles for our front door entry, kitchen, bathrooms and laundry room, we were told that the tile material of our choice was porcelain. Is porcelain same as ceramic? What is the difference between ceramic and porcelain tiles? Ceramic and Porcelain tiles are both made from clay and when these tiles are compared to other types of tiles such as natural stone or glass tile, ceramic and porcelain tiles are considered as close cousins. Some people consider ceramic and porcelain tiles the same or very similar but there are differences between them. There are at least 28 North American tile companies that have gotten certification for their authentic porcelain tiles to differentiate their tiles from ceramic tiles. With this certification, consumers can tell the tile is made of real porcelain by the PTCA Certification Mark. Porcelain tile is more durable and it absorbs water 0.5% less than ceramic. Therefore, porcelain tile is a better choice for high-moisture areas such as showers, pools, bathtubs. Ceramic tile should not be used for outdoors. However, porcelain tile is more dense than ceramic so it is harder to cut. That means an experienced person may be needed in porcelain tile cutting. Porcelain tile is also more expensive.
Is Ceramic or Porcelain Flooring Toxic?
1. Toxic Ceramic or Porcelain Tile Glaze
Glaze is a liquid glass protective coating. It protects ceramic or porcelain from absorbing water and stains. It also puts color, design and texture to the tile. Most ceramic or porcelain tiles are glazed. The glaze can be a matt or glossy finish. However, the glaze can contain lead because lead is often used in glaze to give products an attractive shine. In 2010, the Ecology Center tested 39 ceramic tiles for sale at Home Depot and Lowes. The tests found that 74 percent of the tiles contained lead. Some tiles contained lead levels as high as 1,900 parts per million.
Traditionally, toxic heavy metals including lead were used in ceramic glazes in US. However, lead, zinc, barium, chromium, manganese, cobalt, and nickel compound releases from US ceramic floor and tile all declined by 93.6% between 2002 and 2012. Although heavy metals in US manufactured ceramic tiles have declined in US, tiles these days can still contain heavy metals since now 80% share of US sales of ceramic tiles are imports from overseas. Foshan, in Guangdong Province produces one-quarter of the world’s floor and wall tile. China now accounts for about half of the world’s ceramic tile production. While manufacturers in US have eliminated heavy metals in ceramic tiles, manufactures in overseas have not. Environmental Working Group recommends to use tiles made in the US. According to the Environmental Information Association May 2015 newsletter, it concludes to assume that all ceramic tiles have high levels of lead in their glaze if they are to be cut. Homeowners can get exposed to lead dust if the tiles are chipped, shattered or cracked. If you know your tiles contain lead, you should be careful about lead exposure during remodeling.
2. Toxic Grout
Grout holds the tiles together. It fills the space (lines) between the tiles. Tile grout is traditionally cement-based. Cement-based grout has pores that dirt or other outside things to go in and cause stains, mold or mildew. It is susceptible to staining. Grout sealer is applied to prevent moisture from going into the grout and under the tiles. Epoxy grout, on the other hand, is very durable from stains, chemicals or abrasion. It uses no Portland cement but use epoxy resins. Unlike cement-based grout, epoxy grout doesn’t need any sealer since the grout, itself is water and mold resistant. Epoxy grout has become more popular among tile installers and contractors these days. There is also Urethane grout which is moisture, mildew, mold and stain-resistant. Urethane grout also doesn’t need to be sealed.
Grout can be sanded or unsanded. Sanded means it contains silica and unsanded grout is just made without the sand. Using sanded or unsanded depends on the size of the tile joint and the type of the tile. Unsanded grout is used in joints that are less than 1/8 inch wide or used in floor tile. If the tile joints are bigger than 1/8 inch wide, sanded grout is used. Sanded or unsanded can be found in both cement-based or epoxy-based form.
Then how can grout be toxic? Let’s take a look.
Silica in Grout & Wet Grout
Grout traditionally comes in powder form and has to be mixed with water before use. Grout can contain up to 25% of silica as its ingredients and you can be exposed to silica dust particles when you mix the grout. Silica crystals are harmful to breathe in when in dust form. They can cause severe scar in the lungs when inhaled, which can lead to lung cancer and silicosis. Chronic silicosis can also occur after 20 or more years of exposure to silica dust particles. There is no cure for silicosis. Grout can also be hazardous when it comes into contact with the skin. Wet grout can cause skin burns. Therefore, if you are doing DIY project, be careful with silica dust particles and wet grout since they could be dangerous.
Volatile Organic Compounds
Most types of grout, including cement and epoxy grout can off-gas harmful volatile compounds (VOCs) into the air. One source of VOCs is petroleum distillates. Grout or grout sealer can contain combustible petroleum distillates. Petroleum distillates are group of chemicals refined from crude oil. Petroleum distillates can be harmful when inhaled or by the skin contact. They can cause irritation or burning of the skin and eyes when contacted. They can also cause irritation of the nose, throat and lungs when inhaled. They can affect the nervous system causing nausea, dizziness, headache, and loss of balance and coordination. They may also affect the liver and kidneys.
Petroleum Distillates are listed in the product’s safety data sheet under hazardous ingredients or under caution (saying the product contains Petroleum Distillates). You can see how much VOC the product contains in the safety data sheet as well. Low-VOC is generally considered to be 50 g/L or less. If a product contains high VOCs, it will emit high VOCs in to the air. When grout sealer contains petroleum distillates, it will have warning signs of potential health hazard on the product. Petroleum Distillates are toxic. Therefore, a product with petroleum distillates should be avoided.
Fluoropolymer (Teflon)- Containing Grout
There are epoxy grouts on the market containing Teflon. You can find these among “100% solids” epoxy grouts, not in epoxy grouts that are mixed with cement and epoxy resins. According to the study featured in Clinical Toxicology, the water-repelling agent used in grout, tile and floor stone sealants is typically a fluoropolymer resin, a silicon-based resin, or a combination of both. A fluoropolymer is a fluorocarbon-based polymer with multiple carbon–fluorine bonds. The best known fluoropolymer is polytetrafluoroethylene (Teflon). Teflon is well known for non stick surface coating in cookware. Teflon in grout makes water and other residues away from the surface and have them sit on the outside of the teflon, allowing you to easily remove the stains before they enter into the grout. Teflon containing epoxy grouts are almost stain proof and easy to clean. The study featured in Clinical Toxicology analyzed the clinical symptoms in patients exposed to fluoropolymer-containing sealant and concluded that inhaling fluoropolymer-containing sealants can be harmful. All 90 patients exposed by inhalation developed minor to severe clinical toxicity. Another study concluded that exposure to fluoropolymer-containing products, such as waterproofing agents and sealants can cause lung injury and usually produce respiratory and flu-like symptoms. However, exact composition of most fluoropolymer containing products is proprietary information. Therefore, toxicity may result from the fluoropolymer itself or the solvent so we are not sure if the toxicity come mainly from the fluoropolymer. Further study may be needed for teflon containing grouts.
BPA in Epoxy Grout
Epoxy grout can contain Bisphenol-A (BPA). Bisphenol A (BPA) is a chemical, used as a monomer or additive in the manufacture of polycarbonates (PCs), epoxy resins, and other polymeric materials. BPA is put in epoxy resins which are used in a wide range of building materials, typically paints, sealants, adhesives and fillers. BPA is an endocrine disruptor. Epoxy resins in building materials are often listed as a proprietary information. Therefore, even if resin is made from BPA, it may not be listed. According to the manufacturers, BPA is only used in the production process and doesn’t show up in the final products. However, scientists have discovered that BPA is found in workers through occupational exposure. In addition, all major ingredients of epoxy products are moderate to strong irritants and occupational allergens. For some people, epoxy grout can be an irritant.
Some grouts or grout removers can contain N-Methylpyrrolidone (NMP). N-Methylpyrrolidone (NMP) is a solvent used in products such as grout, resin, mold, foam, gasket cleaner/remover/solvent. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) describes NMP as a developmental toxicant which can cause negative health effects such as miscarriages. According to the California Department of Public Health, NMP is easily absorbed through the skin. It can cause irritation on eyes, nose, throat and skin. Inhaling excessive amounts of NMP for a short period of time causes headache, nausea, dizziness, clumsiness or drowsiness. Repeated, frequent overexposure to NMP and other solvents over months or years can have possibly permanent effects on the nervous system.
Phthalate in Urethane Grout
When you look at urethane grouts, some grouts will advertise their grouts as phthalate-free. Some urethane grouts can contain phthalates used as a plasticizers. Phthalates are a group of chemicals that are mainly used as plasticizers to make plastic (mainly PVC) softer, more durable and flexible. One phthalate, Di (2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP), is an endocrine disruptor and it can cause cancer. Some phthalates may affect human reproduction or development. One of phthalates, Di-Butyl Phthalate (DBP) is used in sealants and grouting agent. According to New Jersey Department of Health, Di-Butyl Phthalate (DBP) may be a teratogen (a drug or other substance capable of interfering with the development of a fetus, causing birth defects) in humans. It may damage the developing fetus and the testes (male reproductive glands). You can find out if a grout contains phthalates as an ingredient here.
3. Toxic Ceramic Tile Adhesive & ThinSet Mortar
Adhesive is used to bind the tile to the subfloor beneath or the wall. Grout is a filler used in the joints or gaps between the tiles. Tile adhesive and grout aren’t interchangeable. You need both to install the tiles. There are two kinds of adhesive that can be used for tiles: ceramic tile adhesive (called mastic) and thinset mortar. Mastic is not high -resistant to moisture. Therefore, it is not recommended for high moisture area such as shower rooms, bathtubs or swimming pool. However, it can be used for light moisture area such as kitchen or bathroom backsplashes. Thinset Mortar, on the other hand, can be used in high moisture area. It is made of Portland cement, water, sand and additives to retain moisture.
Ceramic tile adhesive or thinset Mortar can also contain and emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) which is harmful to our health. According the study featured in the Journal of Adhesion and Technology, a conventional adhesive used for installing wall tiles or floor tiles on areas such as kitchens, bathrooms, and showers emitted significantly higher volatile organic compounds and formaldehyde than low-VOC adhesive. Even though the adhesives are placed under the finishing materials, the study revealed that the adhesives were the most dominant contributor of indoor VOC concentration. Environmental Working Group (EWG) recommends to use water-based adhesive or cement thin set (also known as mortar) to set tiles.
4. Toxic Antimicrobials In Ceramic Tile, Flooring Adhesive or Grout
Antimicrobials such as nano-silver and the pesticide triclosan are added to paints, tiles and grouts, carpets, solid surfaces, faucets. They are added to the products to kill bacteria and mold and prevent them from growing. One of the most widely used antimicrobials is triclosan (sold under trade names such as BioFresh and Microban.) The World Health Organization classifies triclosan as an endocrine-disrupting chemical. Also, under certain conditions, triclosan can break down in the environment into a group of dioxins which are also potent carcinogens and endocrine disrupters. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) concluded that antimicrobials in products have no human health benefits. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) documented the growing concerns that antimicrobials could do more harm than good to public health in the long term. The overuse of antimicrobials could give rise to resistant bacteria. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) recommends to avoid ceramic tile, flooring adhesive or grout with antimicrobials. You can see different types of antimicrobial chemicals in building materials here.
Non Toxic Grout
Here are some tips to help you find non toxic grouts.
- Get a pre-mixed grout to avoid exposure to the powder especially if you are doing a DIY project.
- Get a low or zero VOC grouts. (grouts that is Zero VOC or that can get a credit for LEED under EQ 4.1 low emitting materials)
- Get a BPA free epoxy grout.
- Get a phthalate-free urethane grout.
- Avoid hazardous ingredients such as petroleum distillates. Some grout will have “petroleum distillates” written on the product.
- Avoid a grout that contain antimicrobials.
- Choose a water-based grout sealer.
There were some great grouts that has no VOCs and are qualified for LEED credits under low emitting materials. Laticrete SpectraLOCK Pro Grout(GreenGuard Certified), Bostik QuartzLock2 Urethane Grout, Bostik Dimension Rapid Cure Urethane Grout, Mapei Flexcolor CQ Ready To Use Grout, all had zero or very low VOC but they had mold and mildew protection with antimicrobial technology.
Mapei Ultracolor Plus FA Rapid-Setting Grout – Non Toxic Grout
Mapei Ultracolor Plus FA Rapid-Setting Grout has zero VOC and is qualified for LEED credits under IEQ credit 4.1 ow-emitting materials – adhesive & sealants, 4.3 Low-emitting materials – flooring systems and LEED points health product declaration (HPD).
Tec AccuColor Premium Unsanded Grout – Non Toxic Grout
Tec AccuColor Premium Unsanded Grout is a cement-based grout and contains zero VOC. It can be qualified for LEED credit under LEED v4 low emitting interiors. It is also compliant with (CDPH) Standard Method v1.2 VOC Emissions.
Afm Safecoat Grout Sealer – Non Toxic Grout Sealer
Non-Toxic Thinset Mortars and Ceramic Tile Adhesives
- Look for zero VOC, GreenGuard certified thinset mortars or thinset mortars that are qualified for LEED credits under EQ Credit 4 Low Emitting Materials.
- Avoid hazardous ingredients such as formaldehyde or petroleum distillates.
- Avoid an adhesive and thinset mortar that contain antimicrobials.
Laticrete 317 Mortar – Non Toxic Thinset Mortars
Laticrete 317 Mortar Contain zero VOC. It has been certified for Low Chemical Emissions Indoor Air Quality Certified by the UL under GreenGuard Environmental Institute Certification Program.
It has zero VOC and qualified for LEED credits under EQ Credit 4.1 Low Emitting Materials (Adhesives and Sealants), EQ Credit 4.2 Low Emitting Materials (Paints and Coatings), EQ Credit 4.3 – Low Emitting Materials: Flooring System.
Bostik D-2001 Ultra-Premium Adhesive – Non Toxic Tile Adhesive
Bostik D-2001 Ultra-Premium Adhesive has low VOC content of <30 g/L.
Custom Building Products VersaBond Flex Fortified Thin-Set Mortar – Non Toxic Thinset Mortar
Custom Building Products VersaBond Flex Fortified Thin-Set Mortar has zero VOC and can be qualified for LEED IEQ Credit 4.1, LowEmitting Materials –Adhesives & Sealants.
Custom Building Products CBTSW50 Custom Blend Thin-Set Mortar
– Non Toxic Thinset Mortar
Custom Building Products CBTSW50 Custom Blend Thin-Set Mortar has zero VOC. It can get be qualified for a LEED credit under IEQ Credit 4.1, LowEmitting Materials –Adhesives & Sealants.
Mapei Ultraflex LFT Thinset Mortar – Non Toxic Thinset Mortar
Mapei Ultraflex LFT Thinset Mortar has zero VOCs and it can be qualified for a credit under Leed IEQ Credit 4.3, Low-Emitting
Materials – Flooring Systems. It has Low-Dust technology reduces dust by 90%, resulting in a cleaner and healthier environment. It also meets California’s Collaborative for High Performance Schools (CHPS) emissions criteria.
I felt it was important to know what tile, thinset mortar, grout and grout sealer is used for our home renovation project. Our contractor didn’t necessarily explain what non toxic options we had in the beginning but when I asked questions and voiced my concerns, they were helpful. Our choice is Daltile Florentine Carrara Matte FL 06 12 x 24 tile. It is porcelain tile and is made in the USA. Mapei Ultraflex LFT Thinset Mortar will be used as our thinset mortar. For grout and grout sealers, Mapei Ultracolor Plus FA Rapid-Setting Grout and Mapei Ultracare Grout Sealer (water-based) will be used. They all have zero VOC (except Mapei Ultracare Grout Sealer has 3g per L which is very low) and can be qualified for LEED credits under low emitting materials. A contractor would not know if you are chemically sensitive or you would like to use non toxic materials and products for your home unless you bring it up. What type of thinset mortar or grout is needed may also depend on the area of your home and type and size of the tile. Therefore, discuss with a contractor what may be the best non toxic option for your home.
If you are interested in non toxic engineered hardwood flooring, please read my post, ‘How You Can Choose Non Toxic Engineered Hardwood Flooring‘.
If you would like to find out about non toxic wood flooring options, please read my post, ‘Non Toxic Wood Flooring For Your Home – Which Wood Flooring Is Non Toxic?‘
If you would like to find out more about non toxic solid wood flooring, please read my next post, ‘How You Can Choose The Most Non Toxic Solid Hardwood Flooring.’
If you are interested in non toxic mattresses, please read my post ‘Non Toxic Mattress Guide – Chemical-Free, Organic Mattress‘.
For non toxic sofa companies that you can shop from, please read my next post, ‘Non Toxic Sofa Guide – Which Sofa Brand Is Non Toxic?‘