Thursday, January 6, 2011

Be Safe! Be Healthy!
Health & Safety For The Metal Clay Artisan, Part 1

Don’t burn yourself. Don’t breathe smoke, dust, or fumes. Work in a well ventilated area. Avoid cutting yourself on those sharp tools. Don’t eat or drink in your studio. Don’t sniff glue or eat paste. And don’t eat the silver clay, even if it does say it is non-toxic. Basic, simple, common sense advice, right?

But the truth of the matter is that life and studio work are more complicated than that. Lots of us do eat and drink in our studios! In fact, lots of us have our “studios” at the kitchen table! Where do you draw the health and safety line? Everyone has to make their own decisions on what precautions they are willing to take in the studio, what hazardous materials they are or are not willing to work with, and how they are going handle those materials. I can’t answer that question for you, but in this ongoing series of articles, I hope to give you the information you need to make well thought out decisions and find your own balance between the hazards of life, art, and appropriate safety precautions.

Let’s start with the issue of studio dirt and dust. It could be dust from metal clays, fiber kiln shelves, fiber blanket, refractory brick, dirt, soot, cat hair, spores, pollen, or just general detritus and low local air quality. We all have different tolerances for dirt and dust.

Personally, I would love to have a pristine clean studio (and house!) that would withstand the white glove test on any surface and where everything got put away as soon as I was done using it. But I am not willing to spend all my time cleaning. LOL!

If you have tons of money, you can hire people to help you keep clean and install a professional or industrial grade filtering system. If you don’t care about dirt and air quality, you can just ignore it. If you do care, but are only an occasional MC user, you might settle for just cleaning up your work area and not worry about it. However, if you work with art materials and metal clays a lot, have your own studio, are sensitive to dust, or have a compromised respiratory system, you do need to consider the dust and dirt issue. It also will help you keep contamination out of your metal clay and other art materials. Cleanliness can improve your artwork results and may be critical to some processes (like resin!).

If the only concern is airborne dust, a true HEPA air filter of the type sold for home allergy sufferers may be sufficient for your needs. These can be placed in front of your work area to suck up any airborne dust down to 4 microns in size. I use HEPA air filters originally purchased for my house-dust allergy. These are an economical solution for the hobbyist and small scale artisan who is not working with materials that produce fumes. High production studios, may want to investigate further and purchase filters designed for industrial use. No matter what type of filter you have, be sure to change the carbon pre- and HEPA filters regularly. For studio use, you may have to replace them more frequently than for standard household use.

This is one of the filters I have in my studio, opened up, it is clear that it is time to change the pre-filter!

A HEPA vacuum cleaner or a high efficiency bag for your standard vacuum cleaner can be a real asset for cleaning up dusty and dirty surfaces. If you can’t go with one of these, use a damp cloth or wet mop to clean up dirty surfaces without causing dirt and dust to become airborne.

A combination of regular cleaning and an air filtration system can vastly improve the air quality in your studio. You should also keep in mind the materials you are using, some art materials are more hazardous and require more precautions than others. Be sure to read and understand the art materials you are using and how to handle them safely. I will cover more on specific and common materials in a later article.

Ah, but what about smoke and fumes? Ever notice that burned smell you get when you fire metal clays? Isn’t that toxic?

While the binders in silver clay are non-toxic, fumes and particulates from firing are not great to breathe. Smoke from metal clays is similar to those you get when burning food. Those are not great to breathe either, but not necessarily something to cause panic (unless the burning goes too far and your house catches on fire!). You can read reports on organic gasses released during firing on the PMC Guild website. The Manufacturers’ Data Safety Sheets (MSDS) for PMC Silver and Art Clay Silver may also be useful. All confirm the non-toxic nature of silver clay binders.

All of them also say to have “adequate ventilation” when firing. So just what is adequate ventilation? Linda Kaye-Moses believes that we should be thinking “active” rather than just “adequate” ventilation. An open window and/or doorway make a good start, but not usually enough for even “adequate” where toxic fumes are involved. A fan that blows air from an open window or door toward another open window creating a cross breeze and flow of fresh air is a lot better for general room ventilation. However, if your work creates a localized source of dust or fumes, a fume hood or filtration system that will suck away the contaminated air is a good idea. Such a system may also be required in cases where there are not multiple windows and doors that can be opened or when weather makes open windows not an option. Excellent discussions and advice can be found on the Ganoksin jeweler’s forum by doing a search on “ventilation,” “workshop safety,” or scanning their archives. Two excellent places to start are Charles Lewton Brain’s articles on Basic Safety Principles, Ventilation in Your Jewelry Workshop, Jewelry Workshop Safety Report, and Brandney W. Simon’s Workshop Air Quality. When you read these articles, you will find links to paid advertisements selling ventilation equipment. There are is a whole lot more on the Ganoksin archives, including discussions and directions for building your own fume hood. Ganoksin and its Orchid discussion forum is the best resource for jewelers on the web.

If the concern is also fumes from the materials being used (resins, soldering, firing, & etc.), you should have a filtration system or fume hood that pulls both dust and fumes away and either filters them before returning the air to the room or vents to the outdoors. Brands include HAKKO, Sentry Air Systems, Electrocorp, Vaniman, Lab-Air, and others—I know, I should include links here, but I am lazy and these names give you a place to start an internet search. Some of these units are portable and have hoses that can be positioned to focus on your work area.

Further Reading:

The US EPA has an excellent page with information on comparing the various air purifying technologies and a guide toissues in indoor air quality. I know the government info is far from perfect, but these sites are great places to start looking for reliable information before moving on to the industry, muck-raking, and alarmist sites that pepper the internet.
© 2011 Mary Ellin D'Agostino

1 comment:

Lora Hart said...

Such a fabulous and in depth article Mary Ellin. Thanks for putting so much into your first post. My "studiolo" is in dire need of a deep cleaning and more. This post gives me a lot to think about.