The Hidden Health Dangers of Sawdust

Let’s put it this way: investing in a dust collector can really go along way, especially when it comes to your health. If you regularly spend time working wood, you know how much of a nuisance sawdust can be. It flies all over the place, gets into your power tools, coats your hand tools, and keeps you from breathing clean, fresh air. But that’s not all it does.

Experts and OSHA agree that sawdust poses a serious health risk to those who are overexposed to it. Not only is sawdust an irritant that affects your eyes, nose, and throat, but it’s a known carcinogen that may cause cancer.

If wood is all natural, why is it associated with so many health-related issues? The answer is simple: trees contain toxins. From the bark and wood to the sap and foliage, these toxins exist in various components of the tree. Certain woods like birch and mahogany are known as sensitizers meaning that the more contact you have with these materials, the more sensitive you will become to them. And with that increased sensitivity comes even more complex reactions.  

Who’s at Risk?
As you’d expect, your risk of developing an irritation or long-term disease from sawdust increases with exposure. So, if you’re an occasional woodworker, sawdust may not pose the same risk to you as it would to someone who spends the entirety of their days in the shop.

Think of it this way: the more frequently you work with wood, the greater your risk for developing sawdust related issues. That means if you’re a carpenter, cabinet maker, mill worker, or furniture plant worker, then you need to be diligent about keeping sawdust exposure to a minimum.

Symptoms to Look Out For
Put simply, sawdust is nasty stuff. It can clog your air passages and cause an uncomfortable amount of irritation that may leave you hesitant to head back into the shop. So, if you want to keep your woodworking projects on schedule, look out for these symptoms:

  • Contact dermatitis which often presents as rashes, itchiness, blisters, and scaling
  • Sneezing, coughing, watery eyes, respiratory trouble, or other allergy-like symptoms
  • Asthma-like symptoms such as wheezing, shortness of breath, and chest discomfort

Many people are actually allergic to certain types of wood and have similar symptoms each time they work with a certain species. If you think you have a wood allergy, pay your doctor a visit to find the best course of action.

Additionally, OSHA reports that, in rare cases, certain wood species like oak, mahogany, beech, walnut, birch, and elm have been suspected to cause nasal cancer in woodworkers.

How You Can Prevent Overexposure
The best way to prevent overexposure to sawdust is surprisingly simple. It’s all a matter of taking the proper precautions and purchasing the right equipment. For the quickest and cheapest fix, buy a dust mask. This will keep sawdust out of your air passages and prevent long term exposure from becoming a serious issue.

As a second line of defense, you can also use a shop vacuum. While this may seem like an unnecessary piece of equipment, keep in mind that sawdust can sit for long periods of time and silently cause harm to your lungs and your tools. Having a vacuum handy will let you spot clean when you notice any build-up in the shop.

Now, if you’re looking to take dust collection to the next level, invest in a dust collector. One of these high powered machines will collect sawdust as you work.

Image Credit: tworubies

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