Sawdust Health Risks: Protecting Your Lungs in the Long Term
If you are into flipping houses, are a hobby woodworker, or even just own a home, there are plenty of times that you'll need to spend a bit of time behind the saw. Trim needs to be cut, stair risers must be installed, and flooring must be laid. These tasks are significant but generate a lot of sawdust in the process.
While many people don't pay much attention to some sawdust health risks, ignoring a problem doesn't simply make it go away.
So when tackling that to-do list while also protecting your lungs, what do you need to know? Let's take a look…
Table of Contents
What Can Chronic Sawdust Inhalation Do to You?
Is MDF Safe to Breathe?
How Can You Protect Yourself?
Frequently Asked Questions
What Can Chronic Sawdust Inhalation Do to You?
Breathe in sawdust on too many occasions over too many years, and there are all kinds of fun happenings that you can experience. Here are a few of them…
Fun Signs and Symptoms
Studies regularly show that people who are chronically exposed to high amounts of aerosolized sawdust report frequent battles against a chronic cough, increased phlegm production, difficulty breathing, chest pain, runny nose, chronic bronchitis, headaches, and malaise are the most commonly reported complaints amongst those who have been exposed to large sawdust plumes for several years.
But these signs and symptoms are only the tips of the iceberg.
(Image Courtesy of Sawinery)
Development of Allergies
People who refuse to protect themselves against sawdust inhalation can develop allergies later in life, even if they've never had allergies before. Chronic sawdust exposure results in allergic responses being kicked into hyperdrive. From the looks of things, regular exposure to green sawdust is one of the main culprits here. Sawmill workers cutting green wood daily were found to have an increased risk of developing allergies to outdoor allergens (e.g., grass, hay, leaves, etc.).
The body doesn't like being constantly harassed by sawdust and can become overly sensitive.
Development of Asthma
There are many occupations where workers have an increased risk of developing asthma – even if they've never had any lung issues before – after working at the job for any length of time. Automobile spray painters are one of these groups of people. The longer they work, the higher their chance of developing asthma.
And a woodworker who regularly exposes his lungs to sawdust is no different.
(Image courtesy of Schweizer Kindermuseaum at Wikimedia Commons.)
There are several studies detailing this, with one study finding that even at levels below 5 mg/m3 – the regulatory levels within the United States, New Zealand, and Australia that employers have to keep their airborne sawdust below to stay legal – workers can end up developing asthmatic signs and symptoms.
Other studies have mainly indicated that it is exposure to dry wood dust and not green wood dust that is responsible for the development of asthma in woodworkers. Still, dry wood dust is likely 99+% of what every woodworker is exposed to.
Impaired Lung Function
Almost every study shows impaired lung function with regular sawdust exposure. And just what does "impaired lung function" mean? Perhaps it would be better read as "lung damage."
Doctors use several measurements to test if somebody has lung damage, most involving a small spirometer device. This tube is attached to a little box that you must blow in.
It's somewhat reminiscent of the scream sucker from Monsters Inc., and when you're done performing the test, you feel pretty much the same.
With a spirometry test, the doctor measures how much air your lungs can hold, how much air you can blow out, and how fast you can blow that air out. A low score on any of these tests can indicate impaired lung function.
And here's the thing: as we mentioned above, just about every study shows chronic sawdust exposure impairing lung function.
This study found people couldn't expand their chest as much as they should have been able to. Another study found impaired lung function across the board (decreased forced vital capacity, etc.), as did this one and this one.
You probably get the point. Don't want damaged lungs? Don't breathe sawdust.
Increases Blood Pressure
One of the surprising aspects of chronic sawdust inhalation is that it can toy with your blood pressure. In particular, it can raise your systolic blood pressure.
You have two types of blood pressure – systolic and diastolic. The systolic is the pressure in your blood vessels every time your heart squeezes, and when your heart relaxes between beats, the pressure in your blood vessels is called your diastolic blood pressure.
A rise in either of these is terrible, as high blood pressure is associated with stroke, vision loss, heart problems, kidney disease, and even problems down in your nether regions.
None of that is fun, so you should pay attention when you hear that chronic sawdust exposure increases systolic and diastolic blood pressure.
Altered Heart Rhythms
It's not just your lungs that you have to consider. Yet another factor to add to our list of sawdust health risks is the chance that your heart rhythm could be altered. One study found that parts of the heart rhythm (the QTc) actually lengthened in those of people who were regularly exposed to sawdust. While these levels were still considered to fall within the normal range, the idea that they were changed by sawdust exposure is something to consider.
Of all sawdust health risks, mold-driven diseases are one of the quickest to acquire. This is why woodworkers must be particularly careful when working with moldy wood. This may sound easy to do to the uninitiated, but woodworkers like to work with moldy wood (aka "spalted" wood) because the streaks of mold within the wood look pretty once the final product is completed.
A table made out of spalted maple is a true work of art.
Spalted maple guitars. (Image courtesy of Stephen Drake at Wikimedia Commons. )
While various molds cause mold-driven diseases in woodworkers, one of note is maple stripper's disease, or maple bark disease. Caused by Cryptostroma corticale, this little piece of plant life can reap huge repercussions within a human being's lungs.
Acutely, the mold can cause fever, diarrhea, cough, fatigue, shortness of breath, wheezing, and vomiting. But, if the patient has been exposed to Cryptostroma corticale for years, they were a wood turner who really liked working with spalted maple. They could be looking down the barrel of pulmonary fibrosis (a hardening of the lungs) or even death.
A NOTE OF INTEREST
Another mold-driven woodworker disease is wood pulp workers' disease. Caused by Alternaria, exposure to this mold can lead to a short bout of chills, fever, and difficulty breathing before the patient develops permanent lung damage.
Given all of the above, it shouldn't be surprising that long-term sawdust exposure is also linked to certain types of cancer. Within the furniture and woodworking industry, we see an increased risk of nasal cancer due to sawdust coming into regular contact with the mucosa within the nostrils.
But it's not just the inside of the nose - both the larynx and pharynx are also sites associated with higher cancer rates in woodworkers compared to the general population. One 1965 study of English furniture workers found an increased risk of adenocarcinoma compared to the rest of the population.
Adenocarcinoma. (Image courtesy of Yale Rosen at Wikimedia Commons.)
From the looks of things, it takes about 28-40 years' worth of exposure to sawdust before one is considered at high risk of developing any of these types of cancer, however.
That means sawdust isn't as potent of a carcinogen as many other substances out there, but this by no means is indicative that you can get away with dismissing the threat here. After all, there are a lot of other health conditions and diseases that are associated with wood dust.
Is MDF Safe to Breathe?
MDF stands for medium-density fiberboard. You've probably seen it in the trim aisle at your local hardware store, and it has a brown-grayish color to it and a number of properties that make it of value to the woodworker.
MDF board. (Image courtesy of CC-by-sa/2.5 at Wikimedia Commons.)
For starters, it's cheaper than wood, which is a boon to hobby woodworkers and home renovators on a budget. The absence of knots makes for better paint jobs, and the lightness of these boards makes them much more manageable as well.
While MDF can be a good alternative in some cases, some drawbacks actually led to the question as to whether or not MDF was safe to breathe, becoming a scorching topic of debate within the woodworking industry when it was first released to the public.
The reason for all this debate starts with how the MDF board is made.
MDF board. (Image courtesy of Elke Wetzig at Wikimedia Commons.)
A NOTE OF INTEREST
Formaldehyde isn’t just in MDF. It’s commonly found in plywood as well.
This massive plume of sawdust means that whoever is in the area will be exposed to a much higher concentration of aerosolized dust.
And it's not just the amount of dust that's an issue. It's the size of the dust as well.
Generally, when one is sawing your typical wooden board, the dust generated will be > 5µm in size. The majority of these size dust particles will stick to the nose and throat. That's obviously not ideal and can cause problems, as we've mentioned above, but if those dust particles were any smaller, they would slip down to the little grape-like airbags within the lungs called alveoli.
The alveoli are where gas exchange happens within the lungs. Carbon dioxide is taken out of the cells from the bloodstream, and oxygen is put into the blood at the alveolar level. And that's precisely where MDF dust likes to go.
Alveoli. (Image courtesy of Patrick Lynch at Wikimedia Commons.)
The third reason that this can be a problem is because of the presence of formaldehyde that was in the resin. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) currently classifies formaldehyde as a Group 1 human carcinogen.
Formaldehyde can cause problems when breathing it into your lungs, but when you combine it with a tiny little dust particle, you're not doing yourself any favors.
So, to wrap it all up, whether you're working with natural wood or something like MDF, you must ensure that you take proper precautions.
And just what are those precautions? How can you protect yourself against the dangers of chronic sawdust inhalation?
Let's tackle that next.
How Can You Protect Yourself?
Thankfully, wood dust isn't killing you after a single contact with it. Instead, it's over the long term that you really need to be careful. And to be as cautious as possible here, it's generally recommended that people follow the following steps when breathing air and not aerosolized wood dust.
Wear a Respirator
Hands down, the simplest and most effective thing that you can do to protect yourself against inhaling sawdust is to wear a respirator. This will make it so that it doesn't matter how much you cut, how long you are working, or where you cut; you will have protected your lungs.
The key here is ensuring you wear more than a Dollar Tree surgical mask or get your Wild West bandit routine on with a goofy bandana tied across your face.
You need a high-quality respirator that actually works, and for that, we recommend our TAPR system. (If you're looking for an in-depth review of half-face respirators, check out our blog post on the subject here.) This half-face respirator design will protect your lungs as it stays away from impeding your vision so that you can see better for the close-up work that a bandsaw or fine cuts often require.
You can even wear hearing protection simultaneously with the TAPR system.
It's EN-140 certified, easy to clean, comes with a one-year MIRA manufacturer's warranty, and the mask body has a 20-year shelf life.
Of course, you also have filters if you want a respirator to do anything for you. At MIRA Safety, we offer several varieties to suit whatever task you have at hand.
This would be overkill for woodworking, as it's designed for surviving biological, chemical, nuclear, and radiological events. Still, you could also use an NBC-77 filter to protect your lungs from sawdust.
This is the sweet spot. As a woodworker myself, this is the filter that I recommend here. With this purchase, you get a six-pack of filters, giving you plenty of time for protection. These have a 20-year shelf life, so even if you do less woodworking than you had initially planned, you don't have to worry about these expiring the next time you head back to the shop.
They're P3-rated, meaning they block 99.9999+% of airborne particulates, and their lightweight and sleek design allows you unimpeded vision and minimal neck exertion as you maneuver about the job site. They're a fantastic addition to our TAPR system, and I highly recommend them.
Use an Air Purifier
Every woodshop should have an air filter of some kind. These big boxes suck in the air from the room, filter out the airborne particulates, and then blow filtered air out the other side.
(Image courtesy of BentaxGermany at Wikimedia Commons.)
Every professional woodshop I've ever been in has an air purifier. People serious about the hobby understand that they need to protect their lungs if they want to participate in it for any length of time.
If you find that the price of many of these air filters is just a bit beyond your wallet's reach, however, the guys over at Wood Magazine actually did a study on the different types of air purifiers and which was the best and found that a $40 box fan with a MERV 12 filter placed against it actually worked just as good, if not better, than many of the commercially-available models that are out there.
Other people found that the box fan method worked slower than the commercial models, but either way, that may be something to chew on.
Avoid falling for the trap of thinking that you don't need to wear a respirator when cutting or sanding wood just because you have an air filter. Even with these symptoms in place, professionals still recommend the use of a respirator as well for very good reasons.
Point of Capture
This is huge, and I would argue that this is more important than a shop's air purifier. If you can collect as much dust as possible from the source when the material is being cut, you will have much cleaner air and a much cleaner shop.
Note the vacuum attachment.
Saws tend to spray sawdust in one general direction. This makes collecting much of what would otherwise be poofed into the air reasonably easy. Many miter saws on the market have a sawdust bag attachment for the backside of the saw that will collect dust. Many table saw extensions are also available that help suck all that dust up.
Capture as much of your dust as you can from the source. There's no way that you'll be able to get all of it – the reason you need a respirator and an air purifier – but you can do a lot to keep your lungs safe and diminish your shop's fire risk by keeping all of that dust from floating around in the air.
Do Woodwork Outside When Possible
Whenever possible, it's best to perform your woodwork outside. Because there are no walls, you won't be trapped in a little box where the air quality is rapidly degrading with every cut you make. With the addition of a small amount of wind, a lot of that dust will get blown away from you as soon as you make your cuts.
This is only sometimes an option due to rain and cold, but when it is, this serves as an excellent means of minimizing your exposure to sawdust.
Trimming It Out
Woodworking is not only necessary but is a lot of fun as well. However, you must ensure that you protect your lungs if you are involved in it.
Thankfully, there are many things that you can do to protect yourself, and using MIRA Safety gear is one of the best ways that you can do so.
What are your thoughts here, though? Do you have more to add to the conversation? Are there other shop hacks you use to protect yourself against inhaling sawdust? Let us know in the comments section below.
Frequently Asked Questions
There are thousands of types of trees, so this could be a massive list. For a wood-by-wood discussion, check out this chart here.
Within the States, Western red cedar is one of the most toxic woods someone can come into contact with semi-regularly. It's only allowed to fill the air of a workplace at half the level of other woods, so this would be one of the more dangerous dust clouds. Moldy varieties of wood would also rank near the top of the list.
Outside of those two kinds of wood, just know that one can develop an allergic reaction to just about any type of wood if you breathe in too much.
According to the National Cancer Institute, sawdust is listed as a cancer-causing substance. Of course, remember that dosage and time are huge factors in any carcinogen. Just because you cleaned up your shop after turning a bowl doesn't necessarily mean you'll die tomorrow.
It depends on the wood being used, but yes, you can most certainly be poisoned by sawdust.
For example, Mulga wood makes poisonous spearheads in some parts of the planet. If you are a hobbyist, this is one of the reasons you need to be knowledgeable about what wood it is that you're working with, as well as what type of respiratory protection you need to use.
If you work in construction, your main issue would be breathing in formaldehyde and other chemicals from plywood, MDF, and pressure-treated woods. Provided you're following common sense when working with these materials and in open environments whenever possible, you can do a lot to reduce your risk of experiencing adverse health outcomes due to woodworking.
Being made out of carbon, wood is not bio-persistent, and carbon rots when exposed to moisture. The body also has a very advanced means of dealing with foreign entities. Tiny cells called macrophages will eat things that don't belong, and little hairs called cilia will help to "conveyor belt" foreign debris out of the respiratory tract.
This isn't to say that sawdust can't cause damage while it's inside your lungs (particularly the chemicals that may be attached to it), but it is to say that it shouldn't stick around inside your body for years and years.
If you've just inhaled a large amount of dust, there's not much you can do other than seek fresh air. If you must return to the dusty site, wear respiratory protection. Consider going to a doctor if you inhaled enough to show abnormal signs and symptoms.
Sawdust can stay in the air for at least thirty minutes. It can potentially remain in the air for even longer, but the bulk of the dust appears to settle within this timeframe.
MDF board comprises tiny wood fibers that have all been mixed with glue and pressed together to make a big, long sheet. While it is inexpensive and convenient to work with, it generates a lot of dust when cut and can contain unwelcome chemicals in the lungs.
Spalted wood is nothing more than wood that fungus has started to eat. The colors within the wood are fungi and rot.
The scientific literature suggests that those involved in the furniture, sawmill, and carpentry industry are at the highest risk of developing sawdust-related problems. Of course, the health consequences of chronic sawdust exposure can't just be limited to these occupations, however.
Anybody regularly in contact with large amounts of sawdust could also end up with health problems.
According to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), wood dust concentration should not surpass 1mg/m3 throughout an 8-hour duration. Once things reach 5mg/m3, active signs and symptoms of acute exposure to excessive sawdust begin.
If you're exposed to a massive concentration of sawdust for an extended period (e.g., all day behind a miter saw in a small room), organic dust toxic syndrome is most certainly a threat.
Several different air quality monitors are available for sale online. You must purchase one of these and operate it within your workshop area to determine if your dust collection methods are suitable. If you are regularly engaged in woodworking, consider one of these devices so that you can know if you are staying safe against some of the wood dust risks that are out there.