Ceramic materials, in dry and wet forms, present dangers to our health and safety . Dry materials are a danger to our respiratory system and some hazardous chemicals risk contamination of the water supply. Take care to protect yourself, your studio mates and your neighbors from the by products of your research and production. Read this article (adapted from a document put together by Keith Simpson for the Alfred Grinding Room) to be informed of good health and safety practice.
With reasonable caution and good studio hygiene, the common ceramic materials can be handled safely. The goal is simple: avoid consuming or inhaling any of your raw materials.
Follow these general guidelines to help keep you and your community safe.
- In the wet state, glazes and clays can be considered safe to work with because the risk of airborne dust is mitigated by moisture. Care should be taken to clean trim shavings and other damp debris while the material is still wet – especially debris that is on the floor where it will dry and be tracked through the studio, potentially becoming airborne.
- Wear a proper respirator whenever working with dry materials.
- Take caution when working with dry materials to minimize the amount of dust you generate and to ensure the safety of yourself and anyone near you
- Clean up dry messes with plenty of water and a damp sponge. Rinse the sponge regularly. It is good practice to have a bucket of clean water and a sponge prepared and available while working with dry material.
- Use sweeping compound to gather large debris and control dust. Sweeping in long, slow strokes will also help to limit airborne particulate.
- Use a mop (or squeegee with water and suck up with wet vacuum) for the smaller debris.
Silica and Silicosis
Silica is a primary ingredient in many, if not most, ceramic materials. Though all of the mineral powders that are used in ceramics should be considered unhealthy to breathe, silica presents the most persistent danger to us in a ceramics studio. Repeated exposure causes damage to the lungs and decrease lung capacity. This is due to particle size and insolubility.
A percentage of silica particles are small enough to remain in the air, invisibly, for an extended period of time thus increasing the likelihood of inhalation. A number of these suspended particles are small enough to find their way into the deepest recesses of your lungs where they become permanently entrapped promoting scarring and reducing lung capacity. Conditions arising from this damage are pulmonary fibrosis (silicosis) and lung cancer.
Smoking and Ceramics
Smoking cigarettes increases the risk of damage of particulates to the lungs. Nicotine paralyzes the protective fibers called cilia dust which filter dust, dirt and chemicals from the air you inhale.
Hazardous Waste and Disposal
Some of the materials that are used in ceramics elements that are considered Hazardous Waste by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Of the regulated elements, we encounter 4 of them:
- Lead – Lead is found in leaded frits
- Cadmium – found primarily in red and orange stains.
- Chrome – found in oxide form and stains
These chemicals remain an environmental liability and it is required that they are handled in accordance with federal, state, and local laws. Hazardous materials must be disposed of in hazardous waste drums to ensure they will not seep into the water supply of your community. When using commercial glazes, check the container for the toxicity label.
In a private studio environment, it is your neighborly responsibility to ensure your practice does not negatively impact the safety of your surrounding community. Ideally you would maintain a sink designated for your hazardous materials. This sink should trap hazardous materials which could then be stored until drop off at your local hazardous materials and waste management facility, which can be found with a simple internet search. 
Check out this ceramics specific sink trapping system called the Cink.
The Dirty Nineteen
Use this list to understand what common ceramic materials should not go down the drain. This is not a comprehensive list but illustrates that hazardous materials can exits in small percentages in an unassuming material. The following chemicals should be disposed of as hazardous chemicals and kept from going down the drain or seeping into soil.
- Albany Slip Substitute (Lead Compound)
- Barium Carbonate
- Cadmium Pigments
- Chromium Oxide
- Copper Oxide
- Light Rutile (Chromium Oxide)
- Dark Rutile (Chromium Oxide)
- Granular Rutile (Chromium Oxide)
- Frit #3403 (Lead Compound)
- Frit #3626 (Lead Compound)
- Frit #3304 (Lead Compound)
- Black Iron Oxide (Arsenic/Nickel)
- Lead Chromate
- Nickel Carbonate
- Black Nickel Oxide
- Strontium Carbonate (Barium Carbonate)
- Zinc Oxide (Lead, Cadmium)
- Frit #VO6129 (Lead-Cadmium Compound)
- Iron Chromate (Chrome Ore)
Material Safety Data Sheets
(MSDS) A material safety data sheet is an important component of product stewardship and occupational safety and health. It is intended to provide workers and emergency personnel with procedures for handling or working with that substance in a safe manner, and includes information such as physical data , toxicity, health effects, first aid, reactivity, storage, disposal, protective equipment, and spill-handling procedures.
- Alfred Grinding Room Website – A wide array of MSDS on ceramic materials available.
- msds.com – Free search of 7+ Million SDS.
- msdsonline.com – Free search of sds. Services offered such as inspection of your facility’s chemical footprint.
- Flinn Scientific: How to Read MSDS – How to guide for reading and understanding the complicated MSDS.
Digital Fire Safety Resources
Tony Hansen’s collection of information on ceramic safety.
Environmental Protection Agency – information about chemical disposal.
Occupation Safety Health and Administration (OSHA) – OSHA workers’ safety and health on the job.
The Arts & Creative Materials Institute, Inc (ACMI) – a nonprofit, international association companies which produce art, craft and other creative materials. Recognized as the leading authority on art and craft materials, the Institute was formed in 1936 to assist members in providing children and adult artists with non-toxic, high quality products. ACMI member companies produce a broad array of creative materials that have been certified as meeting government toxicity standards and industry performance criteria.
 Article adapted from: www.claystore.alfred.edu/safety-all-frames.htm.