by Mary Ellin D’Agostino

Where there is fire…

…there are smoke and fumes. Plus, we have to deal with dust from metal clays, enamels, and other materials we work with in our studios.  This is the first installment in a series on the health and safety issues metal clay artists need to consider.

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 only concern is dust rather than fumes, 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.

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 to issues in indoor air quality.  I know the government info is far from perfect, but these sites are great places to start lo0king for reliable information before moving on to the industry, muck-raking, and alarmist sites that pepper the internet.

Coming Soon:
Dust, Fumes, Smoke, and Fire: Part 2:

A discussion of the health and safety risks surrounding the powdered silver, gold, copper, and bronze used in metal clays.

© 2010 Mary Ellin D’Agostino