Henri Matisse once said, “Creativity takes courage.”

The French painter was likely referring to those embarking on a career in the arts. Considering recent findings, “courage” takes on a different form, particularly professional artists who work with clay.

Mesothelioma victims are not all professionals serving the military or working in the construction and insulation industry, where asbestos exposure is tragically common. Those who use clay for artistic expression are literally immersed in material that contains the deadly compound.

Seemingly harmless, clay is derived from natural rock composed of various minerals and chemical compounds. The addition of talc reduces the temperature necessary for heating. Once fully heated and dry, pieces can break off and fill the air with asbestos fibers.

As far back as 2007, awareness of asbestos contamination in clay used for artistic pursuits existed. The Connecticut state superintendent of schools received a letter from the Department of Public Health warning about potential contamination. The DPH cited potential contamination in a specific mine located in the state.

The letter also referenced a 2011 New York Times article reporting that Frank Bender, a forensic sculptor specializing in depicting three-dimensional faces, died from pleural mesothelioma at 70. The piece did not mention any links to his use of clay, yet the stark example cannot be ignored.

The problem likely predates that written warning. More troubling is the exposure beyond professional artists. Recreational use for art projects at school and in the home can increase the possibility of illness to victims of all ages, requiring a different type of courage.