Alan Rosenbaum is a revered professor of art at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). He shows students how to work with clay - at least, he used to, until he was disabled by silicosis. Rosenbaum was exposed to silica dust in the clay mixing room and ceramic studios of the university. The state Workers Compensation Commission last year found that the professor's silicosis was caused by his exposure to hazardous dust and awarded him permanent disability benefits totaling $211,800.
Silica is a common mineral found in clay, sand and rock. The dust in the VCU's Fine Arts Building came from the powder that students and staff mixed with water to make clay, as well as from scraping kilns clean of bits of clay and glaze after firing. There are intake vents directly above the five mixing machines, designed to take in dusty air and run it through a filter before releasing it outside the building. However,the vents failed to function properly, because for five years university staff members taped plastic bags over them, apparently to keep the dust from spreading elsewhere in the building. (There were complaints from woodworking and other shops that the dust migrated from the intake vents into work areas.) By blocking the vents, all the dust was contained in the ceramics area.
In addition to the vents being blocked, janitors swept the floors daily, causing the dust to fill the air for thirty minutes or more.
The Hazards of Sand
Ironically, VCU art classes included instruction on the hazards of silica in clay. (Here is a fascinating, if somwhat bizarre MSDS sheet on sand. It might make you think twice about heading for the beach...) It is hardly surprising to learn that students and teachers ignored the warnings.
Air-quality tests conducted by VCU staff after Rosenbaum's diagnosis found dust levels were 98 percent below hazardous levels -- but VCU did the testing after removing plastic bags that blocked the ventilation vents. In addition to activating the vents, janitorial staff began using sweeping compound to capture fine particles before they were released in the air. In other words, mitigation of the risk was readily available, but such measures were not implemented until Professor Rosenbaum became ill.
As in Julie Ferguson's post last week on laboratory hazards, this situation in the art studio of a major university reminds us that education is not without risk. A little learning can quickly become dangerous. The budding artist working with clay and the mason cutting a cinderblock face essentially the same hazard. Dust is dust. If we are not careful, dust can speed our return to the dust from which we all come. That's one lesson that Professor Rosenbaum is unlikely to forget.