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Dealing With Dust in Ceramics

Indoor air pollution of all types is considered one most important health hazards of our time. The dramatic rise in the incidence of Asthma is said to be one evidence of this. Ceramic arts, crafts, production and lab testing can generate a lot of dust if it is not managed properly. Ceramic educational programs are coming under increased scrutiny because of dust concerns. Most of the following suggestions will greatly reduce your exposure to dust, taken together they should make your workplace safe.

Red herrings and the real enemy

The main enemy is smaller silicosis-causing quartz particles in the minus 1 micron range. These are small enough to penetrate into and clog the air pockets in your lungs. These particles stay airborn for days.

  • The type of clay you are using is not usually an issue, any typical ceramic clay makes silica dust when walked on.

  • Glaze materials are sometimes called 'chemicals' but it is more correct to call most of them minerals. Very few are soluble, most are simply ground rock. While some glaze ingredients are somewhat toxic in different ways, most are not hazardous from an ingestion point-of-view.

  • Wearing a dust mask only during dust generating activity in a closed area does not recognize the fact that the fine dust will stay in the air for the rest of the day or longer.

  • Getting an air filter while maintaining bad habits will only marginally improve air quality.

Install or get

  • Install a dust hood on the wall of a the table you will use for dust generating activities. Use a simple sheet metal box with slots and a connected pipe or drier hose to an exhaust fan that expels dust outside (exhaust fans are simply fans that install in-line in a heating pipe). The fan must be powerful enough so that you can see the dust moving away from you. There must be a source of incoming clean air elsewhere in the studio or lab.

  • A good sink with hot and cold water draining to a floor or portable sump is a must so that water can be used effectively to clean up.

  • Have a smooth easy-to-clean floor that can be hosed down to a floor drain or effectively mopped (existing rooms can be modified by raising the floor a little to slope toward a drain).

  • Have lots of large sponges (in good condition) and water buckets around for cleaning work tables, counters, wheels, and small floor areas, etc. Use two clean sponges (the first sponge to get the mess and the second to remove the residue).

  • Install tables with wheels and don't put anything under them. Wheel them out of the way to clean the floor.

  • Install a central-vac unit outdoors with inside pipes and hoses. Locate outlets conveniently and make hoses easy to get at and set up.

  • Get plastic containers with lids for dry material storage (you can get 10-gallon plastic containers from restaurants). Get a two-wheel hand-truck so you can move these easily when they are full.

  • Install a HEPA ("high efficiency particulate arresting") circulating air-filter. These devices either use filters or electrostatic/electronic methods. Try searching for "HEPA air filter" on a search engine to find sites like www.airpurifiers.com

  • Set up a positive ventilation system; that is, a way for air to get in and a fan to push it out at the other end of the work area . The orientation should be such that the direction of dust travel is away from working areas.

  • Create work areas dedicated to specific tasks: clay storage and processing, glazing, testing, throwing, trimming, slab rolling, clay fabrication, library, etc. Deal with dust as appropriate in each area.

  • If possible, use a separate building, not in the same building where you live and sleep.

  • You can get ventilation tables (i.e. search for "dust" in the store at axner.com) that provide localized air removal.

Habits to change:

  • Work cleaner, be dust-smart. Keep scraps off the floor, pick up crumbs before they are walked on, sponge up spills right away, spread plastic film on the floor for easy clean-up after messy jobs. Don't generate as much dust, catch it at the time of generation. For example, don't just dump dry clay into a glaze or clay mixer, put it in gently so less dust raises. Be more patient.

  • Pick up all crumbs before they get walked on.

  • Clean at the end of the day so dust generated during cleaning can settle out overnight.

  • If you have to place your face in the dust, do not inhale until you are back in clean air.

  • Handle unloading of dry materials and putting into lidded containers outdoors.

  • Launder clay clothing often. Remove clay shoes and clothes when entering your house.

  • Dusting and sweeping puts the dangerous fine particles into the air. Silicosis-size dust goes right through vacuum bags. Heating and air conditioning systems can circulate dust to other areas as well.

Other Suggestions:

  • Use a base-glaze-with-variations approach to minimize the number of materials you need to store to maintain a selection of glazes with different colors, opacities, variegations and surface textures.

  • Avoid too many shelves that gather dust.

  • Good: When using a power mixer place it between you and the exhaust fan. If the mixing is done in the working room, do it at the end of the day so airborne dust settles. Better: Provide an outdoor area or a separate and properly ventilated room for clay mixing. Best: Buy your clay premixed and pugged.

  • Work wet: Don't sandpaper without a device to suck away the dust. Smooth it by sponging or spray a mist of water on first (if this does not detrimentally affect the surface).

  • Avoid rugs at doorways, they become an impossible-to-clean reservoir of dust. Use something that can be washed (vacuuming simply will not remove all the dust, especially not the fine particles).

  • Reprocessing scrap: Large chunks of clay that are too hard to use do not need to be broken before soaking. Once clay is totally dry, any size piece will slake and turn to mush if placed in clear water (already moist clay will not slake). Do not stir it until it is all mush, or it may seal the surface and prevent further penetration. Remove water by placing on several inches thick of plaster or on a stretched canvas.

  • Dust masks must be tight fitting on your face and have serious dust filters that are rated for very fine dust. Search for "dust" at Axner.com or contact you supplier (look for NIOSH #TC-21C-166 and #TC-21C-231).

  • Check at your local hardware store for dust control products. For more information on art-related hazards and what to do about them, visit http: //www.caseweb.com/acts/ (Monona Rossol) or look for Dr. Michael McCann's excellent book Artist Beware c.1979 Watson-Guptill Publications, New York, N.Y. ISBN 0-8230-0295-0.

Success? Gauge your progress by turning out the lights and shining a strong flashlight across the room. Dust alarms are also available, we will be checking into this and providing more information.

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A home made dust collector you can make

A home made dust collector you can make

Example of a custom made dust collection hood in the material repackaging area of a supplier. The slots along the front suck particles into the duct, the suction comes from an exhaust fan downstream where the pipe exits the building. It has a wall switch and a sliding damper (where the hood enters the pipe) to enable stopping all airflow (to prevent heat loss in the room during cold days). Notice it is located above the scale and heat sealer where most dust is generated during weighing and packaging. Working in front of a system like this enables you to work without breathing any dust at all.

A material storage rack

A material storage rack

This material storage area employs a rack to keep pails off the floor so the area can be hosed down easily. The materials in each pail are sealed in plastic bags or the pail is covered with a lid.

Out Bound Links

  • (Materials) Quartz - SiO2
  • (Materials) Ball Clay - Highly Plastic Fine Particle Clay
  • (Materials) Silica - SiO2 - Quartz, Flint

In Bound Links

  • (Articles) Recylcing Scrap Clay

    Guidelines for collecting, reprocessing, testing and adjusting scrap recycle clay in a pottery or ceramics studio or production facility.

  • (Project) Ceramic Material Hazards

    A wide range of materials are used in ceramics. Many of them are harmless, they can be breathed or eaten will little effect. Hundreds of tons of clays are sold each year for the specific purpose of ea...

By Tony Hansen

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