There are so many wonderful benefits to both body and soul when children
have the chance for a good art experience. I hate to raise any issues that
might fuel somebody's argument against making art available in our schools.
However, if we are not well informed, things could happen that really would
threaten our programs.
I have always been very emphatic and strict about the dangers of lead
poisoning as well as uranium oxide (both of which I found in a public school
cabinet when I first started teaching ceramics). However, many other
chemicals are very common, but their dangers are less well known. As art
teachers we work with these materials everyday for many years. We owe it to
ourselves as well as our students to be informed (whether or not our college
About a year ago I got a phone call from the wife of a former student (he
was too sick to call). Her husband has been a public school art teacher and
operated his own pottery studio in the summer since about 1970. His symptoms
were somewhat vague and came on gradually. His poisoning is very rare,
almost unheard of, so it is very difficult for an average doctor to
diagnose. Eventually, he got so sick he could only be up for about three
hours per day. Eventually, laboratory tests at the Mayo Clinic confirmed
that he has a combination of cadmium and cobalt poisoning.
Cadmium poisoning is fairly common among artists and there are is debate
about making it illegal to sell cadmium based paints, but cobalt poisoning
is very rare. The danger of cadmium is so well documented that paints for
children generally do not use it. Professional paints may use toxic
materials in order to be more permanent (fade resistant). Paints and glazes
sold today at least have warning labels if they contain cadmium.
Cobalt is a very common and reliable blue colorant for glazes and paints and
is sold without warning. Many potters would be lost without it. According to
current information, cobalt can be toxic if inhaled, but apparently it is
safe to touch or to ingest. We are learning more about these things every
year, so we can never assume that today's facts are reliable. Fired glazes
are felt to be entirely safe.
In the case of my former student, he was a smoker, he may have inhaled both
cobalt and cadmium from the cigarettes that got contaminated by his fingers.
He is currently in therapy and showing gradually improvement as the
treatment removes the accumulated toxins from his system. Fortunately, he
didn't die directly from this, but his quality of life has been seriously
I have discussed this with other potters including the former editor of
Ceramics Monthly. None of them have ever heard of cobalt poisoning among
potters. I believe this is because we now have laboratory tests sensitive
enough to detect the causes of illnesses that were once simply impossible to
diagnose. In the past there would have been no way to attribute the illness
of a Wedgewood (where lots of cobalt blue is used) employee to cobalt
because there were no lab tests to prove it.
To help my students (and you) get reliable information about safe practices
in the art studio, I have posted the following web site. It has links to
well written papers in each art discipline. You can find the hazards in your
favorite studio area whether it be woodworking or papermaking. Do yourself a
big favor. Bookmark (Favorite) it for your summer reading. Avoid an incident
that could jeopardize all the good we do in art education.
Best wishes as you bring another school year to a finish in the art room.
May we all have a safe and productive summer in our studios.