How Clean Is The Air We Breath?


Twenty-one days to find out if we have poisoned our members. We wait charily as the results we’re expecting could potentially bring this place to its knees; if the independent Air quality test of our pilot studio in Hoxton turns out toxic, then we’ve failed five years of endeavour and hard work.

Lewis in the studio, with Natalie on kiln loading duty. Photo: Paul Fuller
Lewis in the studio, with Natalie on kiln loading duty. Photo: Paul Fuller

When we first started out we just didn’t know what was what, or even how to find out. Clay dust: Bad, that’s about all we had. Opening a studio, we knew it had to be kept clean, but how clean and how would you know if you were getting it right?

It’s a costly and voluntary procedure but we knew it had to be done. We called a company called Euro-Environmental in May this year, who came and positioned mini air-sample devices that looked like spy-gadgets onto our team’s aprons, onto our members’ clothes and in potential hotspots all over the studio. Then they came back eight hours later and took them for analysis.

Lungs, they are extraordinarily valuable bits of kit, and somewhat fragile.  As an ex-respiratory nurse in a ceramics studio these vital organs at once became a constant cause of arresting consideration for me. Having seen the very real and sobering, untreatable effects of lung cancer, emphysema and other devastating chest conditions, managing and maintaining a healthy studio safe enough for some 300 members of the public a week has felt like a dust-crusted Sword of Damocles.

Natalie Smith loading the kiln. Photo: Paul Fuller
Natalie Smith loading the kiln. Photo: Paul Fuller

Silica, its whole inevitable existence can potentially take all the fun out of clay; and all the oxygen from your airways, forever. It is a pernicious substance, even in small doses, once it enters the lungs it dwells there and stubbornly denies your lymph system any recourse to dispatch it; gradually taking over and slowly suffocating you. The studio, it turned out, rather disturbingly, is full of robust sources of this substance. Kilns for example, merrily pump out the stuff all night long (as well as thousands of other toxins). Therefore for the sake of the public and our team, we realised all systems needed to be carefully designed and constantly updated to minimise the breathable levels of silica dust in the air.

So we got venting and mopping, staff, mentors and members all, we sent out grave reminders in our newsletter to the whole of the membership: Clean up after yourselves, for the love of breathable air! Every nook seemed to be a source of clay crumbs and dust. In fact, anywhere anybody did anything would immediately generate a mountain of dust.

I get some good news: I find out that something called a P3 respirator can protect you from  breathing in Silica. They’re not cheap but I buy a load plus spares for all the staff and make them wear them when cleaning, and then I decided while loading kilns, and then when consolidating shelves. Not to mention mixing glazes. I just didn’t know. Should we insist the whole membership wear them?

Our mantra is now: It’s not the person; it’s the system. Although, people operate the system of course. So, as well as attempting to instill a sense of ownership and responsibility into the mindset of the membership via the newsletter and handbook, (terrifying them with tales of the effects of silicosis and issuing constant reminders of the necessity for good cleaning practices; also segueing clauses for cleaning times into their contracts) we have had to slowly build in operational systems into our rota to prevent unknowable chaos getting the better of us. Each change to the procedure has slightly upgraded the last.

This is by no means a simple undertaking and it is credit to our unflappable staff who carry out the heavy work to protect us all every day. The processes are always subject to upgrade - in fact ‘All systems can be improved’ is another of our favourite maxims - because you have to make them work as efficiently as possible.  Minimal input for maximum output with zero waste: That’s the dream.

But has it actually meant anything at all? Has it made a difference after all this shifting and mopping and wet-vacuuming and rotas, respirators, sweat and haranguing people ? Or has it been moving furniture on the Titanic?

The results come in via email and I scroll through all the preamble. Hands shaking.

Respirable Crystaline Silica: 0.028mgs/m3  In all areas, <35% WEL

What does that mean?

Status Workplace Exposure Limit: Insignificant!

Insignificant! in all areas of testing.

I want to hug the team.

Lewis Maughan

Turning Earth Operational Manager

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