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One of the largest health risks in the ceramic and pottery industries is silicosis, a disease caused by airborne particles of silica in the submicron to 3-micron range. When inhaled into the lungs, these particles become lodged in the tissues and cannot be removed. They are abrasive to the lung tissue and can cause scarring to develop. If the exposure is allowed to continue, the victim will eventually lose the healthy lung tissue required for necessary oxygen transfer.
There is no known treatment for silicosis—the best way to prevent it is to limit exposure to clay and glaze dust. This is often accomplished by using filtration systems. But standard filtration systems can be expensive, require special installation, consume significant amounts of electricity, and require costly filter replacement on a regular basis (which can add up to thousands of dollars over the lifetime of the system). Additionally, many systems still affect only a portion of the air in a given space at any time. Therefore, exposure often continues for the duration of the time spent in the area.
Recently, however, an air purification system was made available that can remove these contaminants from the air. The system has been proven by a number of industrial users and studio potters, and holds the promise of providing cleaner, healthier air for everyone who works with ceramic materials.
How Does the System Operate?This air purification technology duplicates the natural processes that clean the air in the outdoor environment. Every time the sun comes up, every time lightning flashes across the sky or thunder is heard, the outside air is being cleaned through the generation of negative ions and the production of ozone. Almost all of the suspended particulate matter in the air has a positive static electric charge and, due to its extremely minute size, remains in the air for five to six hours.
A single purifier unit generates billions of negative ions that attract these positively charged particles, regardless of their size. These particles clump together until they have sufficient weight to fall from the air, where they can be sponged or wet-mopped away.
Most air purifiers also produce ozone, which is a very unstable form of oxygen. Oxygen in its normal state consists of two atoms bonded together, and ozone consists of three oxygen atoms temporarily bonded together. In this state, the ozone molecule is poised to release its third oxygen atom, which will oxidize anything it comes into contact with and render it neutral. This is similar to the way hydrogen peroxide, which consists of one molecule of water with an extra atom of oxygen, oxidizes or cleans a wound. In the air, the ozone neutralizes all odors and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), as well as molds, bacteria and viruses.
None of the new systems require special installation, none will ever require replacement filters of any kind, most run on the energy consumption of a 30-watt light bulb, and all are easy to operate and maintain.
How Has the Technology Been Proven?I have been a studio potter for the last 25 years. A number of years ago I worked for a company that was making a line of cone 10 semi-translucent porcelain dinnerware that was first painted with underglazes, and then the features of the decoration were outlined using the scraffito technique. The underglaze and porcelain dust created by the scraffito process was routinely blown or brushed off ware into the air.
Concerned about the level of contaminants in the studio, I purchased and installed one of these new air purifiers. A subsequent inspection by the Organization for Safety & Heath Administration (OSHA) found the studio to be well within compliance parameters for all particulate matter, including heavy metals, silica and VOCs.
At the time, this technology was primarily being used in homes and offices to remove particulate matter such as smoke, common allergens, odors and VOCs, as well as to reverse “sick building syndrome.” These units (and larger ones) were also being used in several industries, such as furniture factories, woodshops and bakeries (all high silica exposure fields), wire and metal manufacturing facilities (which contain VOCs and airborne particulates), photography laboratories (which contain high levels of VOCs) and computer component production facilities (Lockheed-Martin Space Systems, for example, has used the units to regulate static electrical charges in their clean rooms). In October 2001, the Pentagon used these units following the terrorist attack to remove dust and other particulate matter, as well as smoke and jet fuel residue.
In 1999, I began presenting these air purification machines to other potters, small studios and educational settings through a licensing agreement with the manufacturer. Since that time, a number of potters and ceramic manufacturers have been able to ensure that the air in their work environment is clean.