Clay Artists and Mesothelioma: How They Connect

Mesothelioma is frequently linked to working in construction and insulation trades. These occupations, along with the United States military, relied for decades on asbestos.

Did you know that certain art professions — specifically those involving clay — also used the cancer-causing mineral?

Mesothelioma is a rare cancer, one which affects between 2,500 and 3,300 people in the United States each year. The only scientific cause of the disease is asbestos exposure.

How Asbestos Contaminates Clay

Clay is a natural rock that combines different minerals and chemical compounds. When artists use clay, they mix the dry form of the substance with water.

According to the Princeton University Environmental Health and Safety website, clay for artwork also can contain talcum, a mineral often found near asbestos. Asbestos often contaminates talcum, also called talc, which means asbestos can contaminate clay.

In 2007, the Connecticut Department of Public Health (DPH) sent a letter to the state superintendent of schools about possible asbestos contamination in art clays used by students. The letter states that the potential contamination was “a result of ‘talc’ that is added to certain clays.”

The DPH letter explains that talc “is added to certain clays as a ‘flux’ to lower the temperature at which the clay needs to be heated. The DPH has become aware that the talc from at least one mine in the Northeast may be contaminated with (asbestos).”

If asbestos-contaminated clay was used in schools as late as 2007, then dangerous clay mixtures were likely rampant during the decades before. Not until the end of the 20th century did the public learn of asbestos’ dangers. Even after the truth was revealed, few people knew asbestos could contaminate clay.

Therefore, any person who made clay art — either professionally or recreationally — could’ve been exposed to asbestos without even knowing.

Instances of Clay Causing Mesothelioma

The same DPH letter mentioned a New Jersey court case centered around a mesothelioma patient. The victim was a pottery shop owner who “purchased talc in large bags and mixed it in clays he used and sold.” The DPH referenced this case to explain why not to use talc in clays at Connecticut schools.

“(Clay) pieces that fall off will dry and may create a dust in the room,” the letter reads, noting this can lead to airborne asbestos fibers.

When these particles are loose and in the air, they can be inhaled or ingested. Once the asbestos enters the body, they can lodge into cells and cause mutation.

In 2011, a famous clay artist died of mesothelioma. According to a New York Times article, Frank Bender was a forensic sculptor who created three-dimensional faces using clay. He passed away at age 70 due to pleural mesothelioma.

The New York Times report does not link the cancer to his clay art profession. However, clay’s connection to asbestos — and the known relationship between asbestos and mesothelioma — means a tie-in is plausible.

There likely are other, unreported, occurrences where clay artistry led to a mesothelioma diagnosis. If this description fits you, then we can help.

The patient advocate team at Mesothelioma Guide works with patients every day to find treatment options and financial assistance. We also can help you tie together your clay artistry profession to your mesothelioma diagnosis.

Even if you’re the loved one of a now-deceased patient who worked with clay, you can contact us for help. Email Jenna Campagna at jenna@mesotheliomaguide.com to learn more.

Devin Golden

Devin Golden is the content writer for Mesothelioma Guide. He produces mesothelioma-related content on various mediums, including the Mesothelioma Guide website and social media channels. Devin's objective is to translate complex information regarding mesothelioma into informative, easily absorbable content to help patients and their loved ones.

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