[Clayart] from pete pinnell toxic

mel jacobson melpots at mail.com
Mon Aug 26 17:08:33 EDT 2019

I think any health issues with ceramics are vastly overblown. Of all the visual arts taught in an art department, I believe we’re one of the safer one. Printmakers use solvents and inks, painters use solvents and paints, sculptors use solvents and plastics- I could go on. Even in drawing, people use charcoal in ways that produce enormous amounts of dust. I think that people get freaked out by the word “chemical”, even though most of the stuff in a glaze lab is no more toxic than what’s in deodorant. Toothpaste is filled with “chemicals”, and many of them are in a typical glaze room, but we don’t freak out about putting toothpaste in our mouths. When it comes to glaze safety, one just has to follow basic safety protocols.


I was a “visitor” for NASAD for a number of years, visiting schools to report on their programs to see if they still meet accreditation standards. I found only a few really egregious issues in all of those schools (one had a “snack drawer” among the dry chemical drawers, for instance). Some schools were pretty casual about having ceramic fiber around and using it to stuff cracks, etc.  The biggest issues I saw were electric kilns that weren’t vented to the outdoors. IMHO, probably the worst toxicity risk we have isn’t from dust, but from vapors coming from electric kilns.


Over the last two years we have been monitoring clay dust in our clay mixing room to see if we can get the airborne silica level down to the new level mandated by OSHA a couple of years ago. Now keep in mind, the level they want us to achieve is for there to be so little airborne silica that someone could mix clay for 8 hours per day, 5 days a week for a normal career and not be in danger (without wearing any kind of respirator). We had students wear sampling devices on their chests and found that we were almost down to that level, even with no changes. We’ve now purchased a HEPA vacuum with a snorkel arm that we’ll hover over the mixers and see if that will get us down to the required level.


If you had asked me two years ago whether someone would be safe to mix clay without a mask, I would have said you’re crazy. Yet, we’re close to achieving that standard here (and may do it with the HEPA). I think if a person doesn’t smoke and maintains good studio hygiene, then the risk from dust inhalation is minimal.


Mel, I do have to address your worries about clay programs disappearing. While some are, there are still a lot that are healthy and thriving. When I look at NASAD statistics, ceramics is alive and well nationally in degree-granting institutions at all levels of college. Interestingly, the areas that are hurting the most from low enrollment are Printmaking and Sculpture. They are in much greater danger than ceramics. At the University of Nebraska, our enrollment is thriving and we have terrific support from our administrators. Our students and graduates do well, and the college is often featuring them in articles to the press and in our alumni magazine. On the K-12 school level, I had the honor of jurying the national K-12 school show at NCECA a couple of years ago and the student work was amazing. I think there’s still a lot of great ceramics programs at all levels.


BTW, IMHO the biggest dangers facing potters are A) lifting too much and hurting our backs and B) throwing too much and requiring hand surgery. It’s the mechanical stuff (backs, joints), not the toxins.


The secrets to long life and good health as a potter? I suggest the following to my students:


Follow basic protocols for handling dust and glaze chemicals.

Don’t smoke

Exercise moderately

Don’t smoke

Drink moderately

Don’t smoke

Find safe ways to alleviate emotional stress

Don’t smoke

Marry someone who has a regular job that provides benefits.




Peter Pinnell, professor

website: www.melpots.com

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