Making Art Can Make You Sick

Silica and risky work habits may endanger the health of ceramics artists, sculptors and metalworkers.

Your creativity does not make you immune to health hazards in your studio. Ingredients that fulfill your artistic intent may also be toxic to handle. The danger posed depends on a variety of factors, including what you are exposed to and how long you are exposed to it.

This post outlines the general respiratory dangers of silica and follows up with the potential threat of silica in the studios of three traditional types of artists: ceramicists, sculptors and metalworkers.

A primary source for this post is the Safety Guide for Art Studios, by Thomas Ouimet, CIH, CSP, and published by United Educators, an insurance company.

We also consulted a database published by the City of Tucson, Arizona on the hazards of less traditional art media, such as resins and plastics. The database contains suggested protective methods for dealing with these materials.

Silica. Soil, sand, granite, and many minerals contain silica. When chipped, cut, drilled, or ground, tiny silica particles become airborne and can be inhaled. OSHA says silica can cause lung cancer. In addition, they explain that breathing silica dust can cause silicosis, which can be disabling, even fatal.

Silicosis occurs when inhaled silica dust creates scar tissue in the lungs and reduces their ability to take in oxygen. Silicosis also makes one more susceptible to lung infections like tuberculosis. There is no cited cure for silicosis.

Smoking adds to the damage caused by breathing silica dust. Consider taking proactive steps to protect your lungs from silica if your studio is dusty and if you — or a studio mate or your students — use materials that contain silica.

Ceramic Artists. Ceramicists can encounter silica in two different activities: mixing dry clay and glazing. Clay contains crystalline silica. Loading and mixing dry clays into a mixer can produce clouds of silica-bearing dust. Ceramic artists are exposed to silica again when dealing with dry glaze ingredients that must be mixed; many dry glaze ingredients contain silica. OSHA recommends you wear protective gear when mixing dry ingredients and utilize engineered ventilation whenever possible. Vacuum the dust off your clothing before you leave the studio and before eating and drinking.

Sculptors. Stone carving generates dust and, depending upon the stone being used, large amounts of airborne silica. Sandstone, soapstone, slate, and granite are examples of rocks that contain large amounts of silica. By law, stone quarries must list all toxic materials, including silica and asbestos, in their stone in an MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet) they provide to buyers. If you use power tools to shape your stone sculptures, in addition to wearing gear that protects your lungs, consider using water mist while cutting to keep down the dust. Taking multiple protective actions may reduce your exposure to the harmful effects of silica.

Metal artists. For metalworkers who use sand molds, the silica in sand can become airborne when mixed with binders and resins. In addition, when the molds are broken up, silica is released.
Dust created by dry clay and glaze ingredients can be 
captured by an air purifier with a flexible arm lik
this portable Sentry Air Systems model SS-400-PFS 
air purifier.
OSHA has established a permissible exposure limit (PEL) for the amount of crystalline silica to which workers may be exposed during an 8-hour work shift (29 CFR 1926.55, 1910.1000).Ouimet says, “Poor housekeeping can create an unsafe studio and cause exposure to toxic materials.” His safety manual includes these guidelines:
  • Keep your studio clean and uncluttered.
  • Wear gear that protects your lungs.
  • Don’t dry sweep.
  • Use a vacuum with appropriate filters or wet mop.
  • Wear your protective gear when disposing of the vacuum’s debris and filters.
  • Consider acquiring an appropriate air purification system for your studio space and art-making activities.
Sentry Air Systems air purification units. When you look for an air purification system for your studio, consider systems like our Portable Floor Sentry Model # SS-300-PFS. Its heavy-duty casters make it easy to roll throughout your studio. This model comes with filter options of varying efficiency. The flexible hose makes it easy to source-capture dust particles where they are being created.
This portable floor Sentry Air Systems air purifier with a flexible arm is 
removing the fumes associated with adhesives from the crafter’s work-
space.
If you open your studio to students and other working artists, our air purifiers can be configured to support multiple work areas. To see how our products can be configured to source-capture contaminants for four artisans, click here to view our Floor Sentry Quad Model # SS-300-FSQ.

If floor space is at a premium, consider a wall-mounted air purifier. To view our Sky Sentry Model # SS-300-SKY, click here.

If you have a large studio or workshop, an ambient air purifier like our free-hanging Ambient AirCleaner Model SS-2000-FHremoves airborne pollutants and doesn’t require ductwork to the exterior of your building.

To view all our air purifier configurations, click here.

Resources:
Safety Guide for Art Studios, Miami University,Ohio