Retired LCDR Carl Jewett
VA-Accredited Claims Agent
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Important Facts About Asbestos Exposure for Clay Artists
- Asbestos can contaminate clay mixtures if asbestos-tainted talc is combined with clay, a common practice among clay manufacturers. The clay or “slip” used in the ceramic-making process contained talc and asbestos and the kiln cones typically contained vermiculite contaminated with deadly asbestos. When the dry slip is mixed with water it was very friable as was the sanding and polishing after firing of the casted art.
- Artists can be exposed to asbestos by the loose asbestos fibers released into the air through working with clay.
- There have been cases of clay and ceramic artists developing mesothelioma, and other reports of detecting asbestos in clay and ceramics at schools.
How Asbestos Can Contaminate Clay
The risks of asbestos exposure in art and sculpture come from working with clay.
Clay is a type of fine-grained soil or natural rock created by combining different minerals and chemical compounds. It is formed through the weathering and erosion of rocks, which means there is potential for various types of minerals to mix with the clay particles. When artists use clay, they mix the dry form of the substance with water to make it easier to work with.
According to the Princeton University Environmental Health and Safety website, clay for artwork also can contain talcum, also called talc. This controversial mineral absorbs moisture and keeps skin dry, which makes it the perfect ingredient for certain hygiene products.
Talc has been used for various cosmetic and beauty products, such as baby powder and shower powder. However, talc is often found near asbestos, which has often contaminated talcum powder. This is how talcum powder products (like the now-defunct Johnson & Johnson Baby Powder) cause cancer.
The inclusion of talc in clay mixtures means anyone in direct contact with clay or within close proximity to the material is at risk of asbestos exposure. When asbestos particles are loose in the air, they can be unknowingly inhaled or ingested. Once the asbestos enters the body, the fibers can lodge into cells, causing mutation and the formation of mesothelioma tumors.
Asbestos Issues for Art Students in Connecticut
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 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 decades before. Not until the end of the 20th century did the public learn the truth about the dangers of asbestos. Even after the truth was revealed, few people knew asbestos could contaminate something as harmless as clay.
Therefore, any person who made clay art — either professionally or recreationally — could’ve been exposed to asbestos without even knowing.
Clay and Ceramic Artists’ Asbestos Exposure and Mesothelioma
Mesothelioma is a rare cancer, one which affects between 2,500 and 3,300 people in the United States each year. The only cause of this cancer is asbestos exposure. However, mesothelioma has a long latency period, meaning it can take decades for patients to show any significant symptoms. For instance, an art student who was exposed to asbestos through clay in 2007 may not be diagnosed with mesothelioma until 2030 or even longer.
There is a link between clay or ceramic artistry and mesothelioma, putting clay and ceramic artists at risk of occupational asbestos exposure. While these occupations are not nearly as high of a risk as constructing houses or adding insulation to pipes, there is a danger for clay and ceramic artists.
The same DPH letter mentioned a New Jersey court case involving a mesothelioma patient who worked with clay and ceramic art. 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 clay artwork at Connecticut schools – or anywhere.
“(Clay or slip) pieces that fall off will dry and may create dust in the room,” the letter reads, noting the use of clay can lead to airborne asbestos fibers.
How to Help Clay Artists With Mesothelioma
There likely are other occurrences where clay and ceramic artistry led to a mesothelioma diagnosis. If this description fits you, 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 link your clay or ceramic artistry profession to your mesothelioma diagnosis.
Even if you’re the loved one of a now-deceased patient who worked with clay or ceramics, you can contact us for help.
Email either of our patient advocates — Karen Ritter, RN (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Carl Jewett (email@example.com) — to get more information.
Sources & Author
- Ceramics. University of Princeton Health and Safety. Retrieved from: https://ehs.princeton.edu/health-safety-the-campus-community/art-theater-safety/art-safety/ceramics. Accessed: 10/02/19.
- Potential Asbestos Hazard in Clay. State of Connecticut. Retrieved from: https://portal.ct.gov/-/media/Departments-and-Agencies/DPH/dph/environmental_health/asbestos/pdf/ArtClayLetterpdf.pdf?la=en. Accessed: 10/02/19.