Green Living – Toxins in Your Woodwork

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Many people who are not involved with the green living movement do not realize just how many toxins are contained within many common household items. From the paint on the walls to the pillows you sleep with, they are everywhere.

Now, these are not particularly massive risks to the health of everyone in your family as they stand. However, they have a better chance of causing long term health effects the longer someone is exposed to them.

To those who create their own furniture, it pays to know that one of the most notable culprits that expose family members to toxins can be the products of their very own workshop.

woodworking products

Often in plain sight and beautiful, these pieces of furniture could contain toxins, airborne and otherwise, that can contribute to adverse long term health effects in the long run. But not all hope’s lost ⁠— we will cover the toxic materials in question, pose ways on how to mitigate the harmful effects on your finished products and share what to look for when buying eco-friendly and non-toxic furniture.

What wood toxins am I exposed to and where are they found?

We can safely assume that the craftsmen reading this know the harm that their power tools (like table saws) can cause when used recklessly, but may not be as knowledgeable when it comes to the toxicity of their materials. Again, it is worth noting that these are not outright dangerous, but their effects could accumulate in time.

Wood dust is a common irritant. Even if you thoroughly clean your workshop, you are still likely to inhale a good amount of it. Outdoors, anyone experienced with power tools and revving up a top-quality professional chainsaw still runs this risk.

There are a myriad of effects when this happens, ranging from mild to severe. At its mildest, it can cause coughing, sneezing, rhinitis, throat dryness, shortness of breath, dermatitis and pink eye. On the farther end of the spectrum are cancers in the respiratory tract, including the nasal cavity and the throat. Yes, you read that right — the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) considers wood dust a carcinogenic.

woodworker operating a machine

Sometimes, the wood in itself is not that harmful, but the chemicals that are applied to them are. Woodworkers often coat their finished products with preservatives to ensure long life and make them less susceptible to wear and tear, and these contain arsenic and formaldehyde which then could be absorbed by the body through your lungs and skin.

See Also: The Basics of Green Woodworking 

Arsenic is known to cause certain cancers, and adversely affect the heart and blood vessels. Meanwhile, formaldehyde is one of the most noxious poisons in cigarettes and is the main cause of lung disease and lung cancer to cigarette smokers. While it will take years before the worst outcomes develop and they may not even occur, after all, there can still be adverse effects. Effects of contact to these in the short term include weight loss, cramps, and headaches.

Wood can also be host to natural chemicals such as molds and fungi which can still trigger undesirable effects. Others are poisonous and naturally occurring to certain types of woods. It is not unheard of for these to still be present in wood products, especially when not properly treated. Which is why it is important to tackle our next section⁠—

How do I minimize the effects of toxins on my woodwork and our existing wood products?

Minimizing the effects of these ever-present toxins starts with you, the craftsman. You can control you and your family’s exposure beginning with your gear, your materials, your workshop and then your finished furniture. The best books on woodworking will always emphasize this point.

wooden chopping boards

First and foremost, you must make sure that you have all the recommended protective gear, such as chainsaw gloves and a chainsaw head protector, available in your workshop and wear them when you’re off to work. These include sturdy, NIOSH-approved respirators, a pair of sturdy goggles, and a dust mask. You can also check into creams that would serve as a buffer between your skin and harmful chemicals.

Practicing good personal hygiene is also important in woodworking. To avoid spreading the chemicals that you have been exposed to while working, make a habit out of changing your clothes and showering once you step out of your workspace. Wash your hands before reaching for things that you will ingest, or before interacting with other family members.

When it comes to your tools, make sure that your blades are sharp enough as the opposite could introduce more wood dust in your space. For example, even the best mini circular saws need maintenance, and that’s not only to ensure the quality of your project. You should also know the dangerous natural chemicals present in your wood of choice. If possible, consider changing this to a safer pick. If not, keep the number of cuts to a minimum.

Maintaining your workshop clean is also a must, but you should do so while also taking the necessary precautions, such as wearing your protective gear.  Use an efficient shop vacuum that comes with a HEPA filter to collect dust in the workshop. Your space should also be well-ventilated, a factor that should be determined from the beginning when you are setting up your workshop. Refrain from using compressed air to remove dust.

Oak wood

And finally, ensure that you are sealing your stained wood creations properly. This is the best measure to keep toxins at bay. Some wood, such as that from the acacia tree, only emits a smell when it is cut, whereas other wood, such as teak, emits a strong, unique smell even before it is cut. It should go without saying, but take a non-toxic coat — this would suffice in preventing most, if not all, harmful emissions from woodworks. If using varnish or lacquer, it should be properly cured.

Keep these away from wooden kitchenware, however, as it is safer to use options like teak and mineral oil for your wood finishing touches on products that will come in contact with food. However, take note that teak, like acacia wood, is water-resistant but not completely waterproof, so it’s still better to avoid exposing this wood to extremely humid conditions. Meanwhile, you can consider shellac for your baby products.

What should I look for when buying new furniture made out of wood?

If you are purchasing a new piece of wood furniture, chances are, you will easily be able to find non-toxic items, as many companies have become aware of the dangers in specific coatings that were widely used a decade ago.

However, if you are still unsure, look for furniture that contains a particle board that has been processed with phenol-formaldehyde. Phenol formaldehyde is less toxic than the urea-formaldehyde that is more commonly used.

wooden cabinet cupboard

You should also consider the type of wood that the furniture is made out of. Typically, in looking for companies that manage farm-grown, eco-friendly trees such as bamboo and eucalyptus, you will find that these apply non-toxic coatings on their products.

Read Next: Is Red Oak Good for Cutting Boards?

As the demand for eco-friendly products becomes more prevalent, companies are beginning to implement non-toxic preservatives on their woodwork to appeal to a new generation of customers.

If you are still in doubt, take a trip to your local Home Depot and ask someone about wood and timber manufacturers who ensure that their products are non-toxic. The list is growing, and as such, the manufacturers who still implement toxic practices will soon be in the minority.

Now that you’re familiar with woodworking toxins, you can start working on the easiest woodworking projects for beginners.

Robert Johnson is a woodworker who takes joy in sharing his passion for creating to the rest of the world. His brainchild, Sawinery, allowed him to do so as well as connect with other craftsmen. He has since built an enviable workshop for himself and an equally impressive online accomplishment: an extensive resource site serving old timers and novices alike.
Robert Johnson
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