When Wood Fights Back
That special board you've been saving may harbor hidden health risks
Synopsis: Skin rashes, respiratory problems, and other health concerns are common reactions to many species that woodworkers routinely handle, when wood acts as an irritant or a sensitizer. Use caution in selecting woods used for kitchen utensils or toys, warns Jon Arno. He lists exotic woods that have potentially toxic risks and offers tips on how to work with them safely.
It wasn’t the British army, but an unseen foe, that caused the demise of seven of Napoleon’s soldiers in 1809. They died not by sword or musket ball but from eating meat that had been barbecued on oleander spits. The shrub, Nerium oleander, contains a deadly, soluble poison.
Oleander is a great deal more toxic than most woods. But skin rashes, respiratory problems and other health concerns are common reactions to many species that woodworkers routinely handle.
Plant toxins act as a defense mechanism to deter browsing animals, so the toxins tend to congregate in the foliage, fruit and bark. The woody tissue, as a general rule, is relatively inert. But it’s rarely, if ever, totally void of potential toxins. Depending on how they are handled and the unique sensitivity of those who use them, all woods should be viewed as potentially toxic.
Exposure occurs through skin contact, inhalation and ingestion. Airborne dust sticking to sweaty skin and dust that we breathe in probably constitute the chief forms of contact. Wood exposure affects people as either an irritant or a sensitizer.
Irritants affect a larger portion of the population and may be either mechanical or chemical. With a mechanical irritant, fine dust particles dry out and abrade the mucous membranes. Perspiration releases acids and other soluble compounds contained in the dust to form chemical irritants, which are caustic to human tissue. The symptoms usually are skin rash and bronchial inflammation.
Sensitizers cause the body to produce histamines, which make the rash and the bronchial symptoms more severe. Most people are unaffected by sensitizers. But those who do experience allergic reactions, even from relatively modest contact, may find that these reactions get worse, not better, over time.
Offending compounds in wood, whether irritants or sensitizers, may be substantially different chemically. Some of these compounds, especially ones called quinones, bear a molecular similarity to petroleum distillates, such as benzine and naphtha. And quinones frequently are identified in clinical tests as the probable cause of many allergic reactions.
From Fine Woodworking #114
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