Saturday, September 17, 2005

Clay Safety, Pregnancy, and School Projects

I received an email from an elementary school teacher named Heidi with several questions - many of them questions I get on a regular basis. So I thought I'd share here. The email asks:

"We purchased the sure-vent to go with the kiln. Assuming that the kiln is venting properly, are their any known health hazards that come with using a kiln, clay, or glazes during pregnancy? I know this is an odd question, but I figured if any one knew it would be Bracker’s! Now it is time for me to order clay and glaze… I got your catalog, but I wondered what you would recommend for low-fire projects."
Dear Heidi,
There are definitely known health hazards with a variety of different materials used in ceramics, but most of the problems can be eliminated or drastically reduced by using some common sense logic and a few precautions. Because you're in a school, I will assume that you are primarily using commercial glazes and clays instead of mixing them yourself.

One of the biggest issues is inhaling clay dust and dried glaze materials. Keep dust to a minimum, wet mop instead of sweeping, and wear a dust mask when dealing with powders or sanding pots.

Commercially available glazes should have two different markings. The first marking will show that the glaze is either AP Non Toxic or Cautions Required. This refers only to the glaze before it's fired, and it is mostly applicable to spraying the glaze or ingesting the glaze. Glazes with the AP Non Toxic label (a circle with AP on it) are safe for all ages of kids to use - if they accidentally ingest the glaze by licking their brush or forgetting to wash their hands or even if they drink the glaze, it won't harm them. Glazes with the Cautions Required Label (a square label with CL on it) should NOT be used with kids in 6th grade or below, or with some developmentally disabled people. These glazes might cause problems if ingested. For more information on glaze safety, click on the title link of this blog entry.

When the kiln is firing, carbon monoxide and sulfur fumes escape, and can cause nausea, headaches, and lightheadedness. A downdraft vent system (like the Orton VentMaster, Skutt Envirovent, or L&L Vent-Sure) will remove most of the harmful fumes and prevent those side effects. You may still notice an icky smell, but the bad stuff is below the limits for the appropriate government standards.

For women who are pregnant or breast feeding, I think that taking a couple of extra reasonable precautionary steps is best. I would avoid spraying glazes. I would wear latex or rubber gloves when using glazes or wash hands frequently. I wouldn't dry sand pots (instead, soft bisque fire at cone 020 or thereabouts then sand under water to eliminate dust). And most importantly, I would recommend talking to your doctor, describing what you do and what sort of precautions you are taking, and deciding with your doctor and your family how much you are going to do. Pregnancy lasts just a couple of months and you don't want to do anything that could affect a kid for the rest of his/her life if it could have reasonably been foreseen and avoided.

There are a variety of projects that are great for all ages. I personally love projects that combine art with another subject, such as science, history, or geometry. The kids can go on a nature walk and pick up leaves and other stuff, then individually press each one into small slabs, circles, rectangles, or triangles of clay (removing the organic material when dry). Before they are completely dry, use a drinking straw to cut a hole near the top of each slab. Bisque fire. Then either glaze and fire or use acrylic paints, shoe polish, etc. to decorate. Each piece can become either an ornament or they can all be strung to a stick (also found on nature walk) to create a mobile or windchime. Another project is to create cave paintings on slabs of clay while studying prehistoric civilizations. Use earthy tones and red clay to create a primitive feel. Another project that can be a lot of fun and inspire creativity is to have the kids combine two completely different animals. Make sure they pick a reptile and a bird or a mammal and a fish or something that will bring very different textures and styles together. For example, you can talk about how the platypus (it had a muzzle like a duck's bill, a tail like a beaver and lays eggs but suckles its young and was originally thought to be a hoax when English scientists first saw it) looks like it has parts of several different animals all together and see what strange creature combinations the kids can come up with. Then English teachers could get the kids to write a creative story about their made-up creatures.

We will be having a teacher's roundtable discussion workshop in early February. Art teachers from the area can come to Bracker's for a few hours on a Saturday and exchange ideas, tricks, and tips as well as ask questions of other teachers in similar situations. This is the perfect place to learn other cool ideas for clay projects and to brainstorm with a wide variety of teachers (different levels of experience, different budget concerns, different school districts, etc.). Look for the information online in a couple of months or in the Winter Sale flyer that we send out in late October/early November.


Atikokan Art Centre said...

Thanks for all the great information about safety in the pottery room!

All the best


Anonymous said...

I have a different question but about safety at school. I'd like to suggest a school project for the kids to make seed balls. Basically you take dry red clay and mix with seeds and compost. Then add some water to roll it into balls. The balls can then be thrown onto areas that it is difficult to grow on and hopefully growth will come! But the more I research red clay the more concerned I am about health hazards. I'm wondering if the adults mix the clay/seeds/compost and then add it ok for elementary school kids to handle the mixture to make the balls? I'm assuming that while the adults put the mixture together, they should wear masks and wet mop the area when they are done? Any resources you can point me to? Thanks so much!

Fairfax, CA