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A Problem With Cobalt?

Cobalt oxide and cobalt carbonate are ceramic raw materials widely used by potters. They are frequently found in glaze and slip formulas contributing, under varied circumstances, a light to dark blue color depending on the amount employed. Cobalt has traditionally been used as a decorative blue colorant in everything from Chinese porcelain to American salt glazed stoneware. However, its use today reflects a wider problem potters face when employing any ceramic raw material. The dilemma is not with the specific raw material but with the lack of pertinent health statistics relating to the effects of ceramic raw materials on potters. The available statistics are based on industrial populations of workers whose exposure and duration rates are significantly different from potters working in craft centers, schools, and private studios. In the wider economic world large industries have the incentive and money to assemble and document health problems associated with the workplace. There have been numerous statistical records in commercial areas such as mining, paper production, and metal industries as to the effects of raw materials on workers. From the data obtained many procedures have been enacted for the safe handling of raw materials.
There is also an economic incentive for industry to protect its workers to prevent potential litigation. This is not the case with the population of individual potters who have no economic resources for such health related documentation. A central question that has not been addressed is: can an accurate extrapolation of industrial statistics be applied to potters who have lower exposure and duration rates?
Based on the lack of health and safety statistics as they relate to the small population of potters can it be possible that ceramic raw materials will become the next “asbestos type” material for potential litigation? Society in general has become more litigious, a description for taking legal action over a real or imagined injury to a person or damage to property. It is not surprising that this mania has inevitably come to the field of ceramics. It is present even in lawsuits generated from customers scalding themselves from a hot cup of coffee. The economic reactions to lawsuits, or even the possibility of lawsuits, can have a negative effect on ceramics suppliers and eventually on potters who purchase ceramics equipment, supplies, and raw materials. Ceramics is a small industry. In fact, the term industry really does not apply to ceramic supply companies, equipment manufacturers, glaze companies and clay producers who sell to potters involved in this creative activity. For the most part ceramics supply companies are staffed by few employees, and the potters to whom they sell to are individual craftsmen. With such a small market for goods and services, any negative influence on profit margins can have large penalties for producers and consumers of raw materials. Larger industry has the capital and personnel to bear the possibility of legal actions regarding their products or services. Ceramics supply companies do not have staffs of lawyers or high profits to pay for any type of legal action that a raw material complaint might produce.
Not only can an individual potter be sued but a ceramics supplier can conceivably be named as party to a law suit for selling items to the potter that caused the eventual user real or imagined harm. For example, if a potter sells a coffee cup with a glaze containing cobalt carbonate and the user claims the glaze transferred harmful amounts of cobalt into their body, a problem can exists on many levels. Conceivably the potter who made the pot and the ceramics supplier who sold the raw materials used in the pot could be named in the lawsuit. Such lawsuits are going after “deep pockets”, or defendants who can afford to pay damages. Depending on the circumstances of the case a party can be dropped from the suit, but the process does require a lawyer who expects a fee for services. Defending against a potential or actual lawsuit can be an expensive and time-consuming process for any individual or business. Aside from the costs involved in such actions, the tangible area of liability has to be evaluated as to the declared damage inflicted on persons or property. Most, if not all, ceramic supply companies and individual potters would not knowingly allow a situation to exist where a product could inflict damage or illness on their customers, but good intentions have little to do with the factors driving litigation. Even if negligence cannot be assigned, the time and cost to defend oneself is considerable. In many instances even if the case does not go to court legal fees are incurred.
During the past few years, there has been a steadily increasing amount of conjecture and embellished claims concerning the use of raw materials by potters. Many undesirable things can grow in a climate of ignorance and speculation. Ceramic raw material toxicology has become increasingly subject to exploitation and misunderstanding by the uninformed and misguided. Ignorance of ceramic raw materials by the legal profession and exploitation by individuals who make their income from distorting data has increased in the past few years. This disturbing trend is in part due to the revenue potential associated with any form of litigation. A steady flow of articles has been published warning of new ceramic “poisons of the month.” The topic of health factors relating to ceramic materials has attracted alarmist “experts” with access to undiscriminating print media. Rather than counter such biased reporting knowledgeable potters and centers of ceramic learning have consistently remained silent.
While it is understandable that individuals cannot access the resources to scientifically counter misconceptions regarding ceramic materials, it is inexplicable why places of “higher learning” have not undertaken ceramic related health studies to counter false claims and rumors. Research studies on the effects of ceramic raw materials as pertaining to potters are not to be found in colleges offering ceramics. They are frequently introspective institutions looking only toward their own activities and not to the wider population of potters.


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