Can Wood Make You Sick?

We all know that sawdust and fine dust particles floating in the air don’t just make your jobsite a mess; they’re also health hazards.

four different kinds of woods splayed out

We all know that sawdust and fine dust particles floating in the air don’t just make your jobsite a mess; they’re also health hazards. Typically, we think of distant consequences like breathing problems as something people deal with in old age. But often there are immediate effects.

It’s not just about dust. Oils and compounds in wood cause adverse reactions, and people can become sensitized to a particular species. It’s impossible to predict who will be susceptible to which woods. Reactions range from mild to severe, and they can be immediate or build up over time.

Many wood species are known sensitizers, but some are worse than others. The yew tree, for example, is flat-out toxic. Other known sensitizers include common species such as oak, cedar, birch, walnut, and spruce, which is mixed in with most bins of construction lumber. Several websites, such as wood-database.com, list woods with a reputation for being sensitizers.

I know several professional woodworkers who’ve experienced sensitization, and unfortunately, I have my own experience. As a young cabinetmaker I worked in a tiny shop in the basement of my boss’s home. There was little to no ventilation, and we rarely wore dust masks. We did a lot of work using a stunning African hardwood called padauk, which caused me no ill effects at the time.

Twenty-five years later, I was commissioned to build a project using padauk. After making one rip on the table saw, I started to feel it: runny nose, watering eyes. Within the next five minutes, I experienced shortness of breath and general malaise. I quickly locked up the shop and went home for the day. My clothes and I both required a good laundering before I felt better. Working with padauk is no longer fun!

I still had to finish the project, which meant I needed long sleeves, nitrile gloves, a canister filter mask and goggles. So, if you want to continue you safely working with wood for a while, take precautions now: Wear a dust mask, use dust collection and look into purchasing an air scrubber. Had I taken these precautions in those early years, I likely wouldn’t have developed this sensitivity.