Allegic reaction to sawdust

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Dangers associated with breathing sawdust and saftey precautions to take. August 1, 2001

I was running my mill on some soft maple logs. I wasn't happy with the way the mill was set up into the wind, but with the terrain and the location of the logs, I had no choice. Since then, I have had a bloody nose (for a few days now) and bad chest congestion. Is it harmful to breathe dust from soft maple? I was aware of problems with walnut, but not maple.

Forum Responses
Almost all wood dust, especially if very fine, can cause allergic reactions in many people and can cause skin irritation, as well. The very fine dust is also a known carcinogen, with cedar supposedly being a very bad offender.

Gene Wengert, forum technical advisor

If you're sawing wood a lot, there is a real concern for breathing any of the dust. You get too much exposure running a mill and you need to wear a dust mask. I have trouble with spalted wood and cedar. I recommend a Dust-foe 66 mask--very good fit, very little discomfort.

A while back I sawed some locust fence posts and everyone in the mill got nauseous from the green dusty haze that hung in the air. Half a day was enough--after lunch we went back at it with dust masks. They do make a difference!

Take care to note which woods do it to you, as each individual has different responses to fine wood dust. Some tropicals (like cocobolo) and some cedars (like Alaska yellow, which smells like camphor) make some people just about pass out. I've known people to hurl after cutting cottonwood. Personally, I could eat redwood for lunch, but I wear a vapor mask when cutting some kinds of cypress.

My wife helped me stack some fresh hickory and she was covered with large hives about two hours after we finished. A local farmer said he knew of that happening to some people from nut trees.

I have found that cutting ash gets me congested and makes for a horrible evening. Couple of snorts of decongestant and I'm good to go.

Last summer I developed an allergy to yellow poplar. Exposure makes my eyes swell about shut. Claritin helps some. I think it was sassafras that really caused the sensitivity, because it bothered me some first. Ash sometimes affects me as well.

My tree care workers and I look for the Tums when we work with or remove blue spruce trees. I have not had any trouble sawing it on the timber harvester. Don't take a chance and be safe. Dust mask, Tums.

From the original questioner:
I have worked with wood for twenty years now and this is the first time I've had any problems. I know that I need to wear a mask more, but they are very hot and uncomfortable. I suppose it is time to play it safer.

About 20 years ago I was working with cedar in a rustic furniture operation. Lots of fine dust around and we did use protection. I still ended up with a reaction from it and was hospitalized for a week and a half. I was one sick puppy. I have not been able to work around cedar since. The oils in cedar are very toxic, so limit breathing any sawdust. It can all lead to "brown lung".

Cedar has been mentioned several times. Which species seem to be the culprit?

Western red has the most documentation, but I wouldn't be surprised if others are also very likely to cause problems for some people.

Gene Wengert, forum technical advisor

The comments below were added after this Forum discussion was archived as a Knowledge Base article (add your comment).

Comment from contributor A:
Wood allergy can be tricky. My symptoms don't show up until the next day (e.g., if I even wear a sweater stored in a cedar chest, I'm fine that day, but the next morning I wake up with my eyes swollen half shut and a rash on my wrists and neck where the sweater touched). So feeling okay while you're working with a wood doesn't mean you won't suffer the next day. I've had similar problems when working with some exotics. Typically, it's the woods that are good at repelling/killing insects and fungi that hurt me. So it tends to be tropical woods, redwood, cedar, etc. These woods, especially cedar, also give some people asthma attacks.

I find that dust masks with an exhalation valve (a one-way plastic valve in the middle, that lets air directly out instead of it having to seep back out through the mask) are far more comfortable than typical dust masks that don't have the valves. I have much less problem with being hot and sweaty. They cost a little more, but you can buy in bulk online and they're pretty cheap. Well worth the extra money! 3M makes a whole series, for example. I use the ones that also filter out fumes (e.g., varnish fumes) but you can get just plain dust masks with exhalation valves.

Comment from contributor B:
Beware symptoms from working with tropical hardwoods which can lead to allergenic alveolitus, and eventual permanent lung damage. The Alveoli (hence alveolitus) can be present in the body for a long period, but only obvious when triggered by other means, e.g. cold or flu virus. Symptoms similar to 'farmers lung' or 'pigeon fanciers lung', namely sweating/shivering, hard beathing and general weariness. Shows only on CT scan, not chest x-ray or blood tests. Original symtoms of not feeling 100% well usually attributed to age, as it generally affects people in the 50 age group. On the increase but no one knows why.

Comment from contributor C:
Teak is mean to work with for those of us who are allergic. This is the worst rash and itch you could ever imagine. Once you start scratching, you cannot stop. It doesn't bother me much during the cooler months, but when summer rolls around, I can count on it showing up. The best prevention Ii've found is cheap baby powder and
lots of it, on all exposed skin. One intresting thing my doctor told me is not to wash the dust off until the end of the day. Every time you wash, you remove the body oils that help protect your skin.

Comment from contributor J:
Even if I come into contact with what I would class as relatively small amounts of sawdust from, for example, sanding a table, I suffer really badly from an itchy rash, notably on my wrists, chest and neck. Recently after sanding some floors I added swollen eyes and a nasty irritation on my face to the list of symptoms (despite wearing a mask). Iíve always been advised to take anti-histamines such as hay fever tablets. You may find these help speed recovery.

Comment from contributor D:
I was sanding walnut chairs for several days and my wife reacted with swollen itchy eyes and fatigue for over a week. I would be interested if this has occurred with anyone else. The compound in walnut is juglone, specifically napthaquinone, of which there is very little information related to human reactions and toxicity.

Comment from contributor R:
For the first time in 71 years I recently had an allergy resulting in swollen face, lips etc. and this happened the day some people were sanding an oak floor (made from old wine barrels) in my apartment. Antihistamine injection and pills daily for a week cured it. Then it happened again soon after. I had been woodworking on red cedar planks and some walnut pieces, restoring an old cart. Clearly, my problem is with the wood dust and thanks for confirming cedar is a big problem! Masks from now on.

Comment from contributor E:
I have just discovered that allergies can develop later in life! I am 70 and "had" no allergies to anything. Eight years ago I noticed a bit of a runny nose after mowing around cedar trees and disturbing clouds of pollen. I was working with cedar building a deck and cut some 3,000 board feet - no reaction.

Over the next few years I began to develop a little cough after the odd time I worked with cedar. Then yesterday I was building a small deck, when I suddenly realized I could not get enough breath so I thought my simple surgical type face mask was blocked with dust. Removing it did not help, and before I knew what had happened, I was so breathless just walking a few paces made me feel as though I had sprinted a 100 yards!

I felt terrible and couldn't climb stairs. Even lying in bed I couldn't get enough air and was still gasping. The next day was not as bad, but as I write this I am still a bit short of breath and remain amazed at how quickly the earlier mild reaction became so serious. Respirator from now on!