Not long ago, we reported on an asbestos scare in Connecticut in which talc used in children’s art clay was found to contain asbestos (see “Asbestos-Laden Art Supplies,” 6 November 2007). The tremolite asbestos was actually a contaminant in the talc used to manufacture the clay. Talc miners in upstate New York suffer from some of the highest rates of mesothelioma in the nation. The talc that ceramic artist Patti O’Donnell used in mixing her clays came from Death Valley, California, where several companies once mined for the substance. Ms. O’Donnell, now 67 years of age, was recently diagnosed with mesothelioma, attributed to the tremolite fibers that are a common contaminant of talc. Several of these talc companies were named in the lawsuit that she and her husband Reginald filed in a San Francisco Superior Court last year. Last month, the last of these defendants settled with Ms. O’Donnell just before the trial was scheduled to begin. These settlements total $5.6 million.
Tremolite fibers are a form of amphibole asbestos–exceptionally deadly, spear-shaped fibers that, once inhaled, burrow through the lung tissue to the outside, causing DNA mutations in cells that result in the cancer of the outer linings of the lungs and chest known as mesothelioma. During the discovery process of the suit, the talc companies were required to turn over documents showing that management was aware of the asbestos hazard in the companies’ products as early as the 1970s and failed to issue any kind of warning. Ms. O’Donnell started her career as a ceramicist in 1973 and owned and operated two studios over the next twenty years in California and Oregon. She was exposed to heavy clouds of tremolite-containing talc each time she mixed the “slip”, or liquid clay used for creating ceramic art. Further exposure was due to the finish work performed on these items prior to firing and glazing, which required that the surfaces of such items be sanded–creating yet more dust. Mesothelioma generally has a latency period of anywhere from 20 to 50 years. Anyone who worked or took classes at either of Ms. O’Donnell’s facilities between 1973 and 1993 should get regular medical check-ups, as mesothelioma is most treatable in its early stages.