Anyone who works with clay should be aware of the potential hazards associated with ingredients of not only clay in general, but also the individual components of each specific clay or glaze used.
For example, harmless as clay ingredients may seem, some clays contain manganese to achieve a speckled, reduction look in an oxidation firing. But chronic inhalation of manganese has been linked with a degenerative nervous system disease and adverse reproductive effects.
In addition to clay ingredients, one should be aware of the potential side effects of using individual glaze chemicals and various other ingredients and compounds present in the potter's studio. By law, all suppliers of the raw materials used in the clay artist's studio are required to make available Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) to anyone who requests them. Each MSDS for a clay or glaze lists all ingredients used, along with potential side effects associated with these materials.
It's especially important for pregnant women to research the materials they use in their studios. Lead, which is extremely toxic, should not be used by a pregnant woman for any reason, as even minute amounts can cause serious birth defects in the developing fetus.
If you or a loved one is pregnant or contemplating pregnancy, there are some important precautions which you/she should take when working with clay.
First, do not work with lead under any circumstances. This substance is a known cause of birth defects, even when ingested in trace amounts. If you have worked with lead in the past, consider having a lead test done before you become pregnant, as this substance accumulates in your system and can affect the unborn baby even if you stop using it before pregnancy.
Arrange for someone else to mix all of your glaze materials and clean your studio during the term of your pregnancy. This is because, as most of us know, the inhalation of glaze chemicalsespecially the heavy metals such as copper and cobaltcan have various adverse effects on your health. Manganese has been proven harmful to the developing fetus. Inhalation of free silica (clay dust) can adversely affect the mother's lungs. Normally, potters wear respirators to prevent inhalation of these toxic substances, but this practice is questionable for pregnant women. A respirator efficient enough to filter out these minute toxic particles greatly restricts the intake of air. Because a pregnant woman's need for oxygen increases due to the fetus's additional needs for oxygen, she needs to inhale more air, so reducing the air intake could be harmful. Inhalation of kiln emissionseven during bisque firingsshould be completely avoided.
It's important to note that a pregnant woman's blood circulation increases by 30-40 percent. This results in an anemic condition which makes her more sensitive to toxins which can be absorbed into the bloodstream. Yet not only is the pregnant woman herself more sensitive, the fetus is at greatest risk of harm.
Just as with most other types of exercise performed regularly before becoming pregnant, OB-Gyns generally agree that wheel-throwing all the way up to childbirth is fine, as long as it's comfortable. The pregnant woman should take breaks more frequently and perform stretching exercises such as "the pelvic tilt" (taught at prepared childbirth classes) to alleviate lower back discomfort. She should ask for assistance when lifting heavy clay boxes, etc., and should refrain from centering huge amounts of clay.
As with any pregnant woman, the expectant potter should consult with with her physician early on, to ensure delivery of a healthy, happy baby.
The term "back-breaking work" could be applied to pottery with little objection, for nearly all of us have suffered some form of discomfort after extended sessions throwing at the wheel, loading and unloading heavy boxes of clay, standing at the slab roller, bending at the wedging table, or shuffling heavy boxes of pots around at trade shows and craft fairs. Complaints of neck and back problems, wrist problems, and carpal tunnel syndrome are common topics discussed among potters...but how do we go about preventing these ailments?
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