Q: My studio is piled with scraps of dry pottery clay, and it seems really dusty in there. Is this going to give me lung cancer? What can I do about it?
A: I believe it is silicosis, not lung cancer, that is caused by clay dust, although there may be a connection between the two. Silicosis will kill you a little slower. Be aware that glaze ingredients are more highly toxic, and will kill you quicker, in various different ways.
Wearing a NIOSH-approved dust mask, clean up the existing mess. Shovel up the big piles, then mop. Sweeping puts more dust into the air. Vacuum cleaners tend to pick up the coarse particles but disperse the fines, although there are some expensive ones on the market that are better in this regard.
Then try to change your ways. Working cleaner would be a start—instead of throwing scraps on the floor, keep a bucket handy. Think about the operations that fling scraps around, and try to devise solutions—for instance, if trimming pots is the problem, rig a catch basin around the wheel. If you are removing clay from a big sculpture, you can spread plastic film on the floor for easy clean-up.
A HEPA circulating air-filter helps reduce the dust in the air, but it won’t be a solution in itself. Positive ventilation is also good; have a way for air to get in, and install a fan to push it out. Unfortunately, in the winter you might freeze using this approach. If the air is exhausted at the other end of the studio, it probably helps, assuming there isn’t too much dust on the floor. Mop daily, after working. Gauge your progress by turning out the lights and shining a strong flashlight across the shop. Dust particles will show in the beam of light.
For more information on art-related hazards and what to do about them, look for Dr. Michael McCann’s excellent book Artist Beware (1979), Watson-Guptill Publications, New York, N.Y. ISBN 0-8230-0295-0.