How bad is it to breath in some sawdust

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Forum topic by richgreer posted 11-21-2011 05:40 PM 102464 views 1 time favorited 34 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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4541 posts in 4131 days

11-21-2011 05:40 PM

We know that it is bad to breath in too much sawdust. Yet, I am sure all of us have breathed in some.

I once suffered a pretty bad reaction from breathing in some Honduran rosewood dust. I’ve never suffered any immediate effects from other woods. Of course, I know that it can still be harmful to your health, over the long term, if you breath in too much of any dust.

Can anyone opine on the degree to which breathing in sawdust is harmful to our health? I’m sure it varies based on the wood. I wonder how harmful some of the common domestic woods are (oak, maple, walnut, cherry, etc.)

I ask this because I am debating with myself about buying some more (expensive) equipment to better control dust in my shop.

-- Rich, Cedar Rapids, IA - I'm a woodworker. I don't create beauty, I reveal it.

34 replies so far

View Paul Mayer's profile

Paul Mayer

1154 posts in 4122 days

#1 posted 11-21-2011 05:55 PM

Wood dust has been classified as a carcinogen by a couple US agencies I believe, and the finding is irrespective of species from what I understand. Some species cause additional problems; allergic reactions, etc., in case I didn’t have you at “cancer”. :)

I think we all owe it to ourselves and to our families to get smart about dust collection, upgrade to more powerful systems, do our homework on duct design, modify the tool ports on many of our tools to deliver better suction and capture more dust at the source, and use the best filtration on our systems that we can so that the microscopic dust is not pumped back into our shops.

-- Paul Mayer,

View Lifesaver2000's profile


556 posts in 4169 days

#2 posted 11-21-2011 05:59 PM

While I can’t offer an informed opinion about just how bad breathing sawdust is for a person, I can offer a bit of information that might help put it in perspective. And, keep in mind I am NOT saying that breathing sawdust is not bad for a person.

I have been a paramedic for eleven years now (who would have guessed). In that time, I have had scores, perhaps even hundreds of patients with some type of COPD (mainly emphysema or chronic bronchitis). In talking with those patients, as well as the patients that have had some type of lung cancer, I have found exactly ONE of them who was not a tobacco smoker for a significant portion of their life prior to becoming ill. That one person had worked at a limestone crusher for his entire life. Oh, and I live in an area where saw mills have been a very common sight for decades.

Of course, I don’t mean to imply that their are not other things that cause breathing problems. I have two aunts who never smoked at all, but both lived in a high air pollution area of California starting back in the days before they had much in the way of environment law. One died of lung cancer in her 50’s, and the other had to move to a different part of the country just to be able to breath because of her chronic bronchitis.

Again, I am not trying to imply that breathing a lot of sawdust would not be a bad thing, especially if you do it all day for five or six days a week. I am just saying that, at least in my experience, there are other things that are a lot more common causes of breathing problems other than sawdust.

View Manitario's profile


2818 posts in 3939 days

#3 posted 11-21-2011 06:22 PM

The risk is based on amount of exposure x duration of exposure. So, a small amount of sawdust everyday is probably equivalent to a large amount of sawdust once or twice a week. What can’t be calculated out is how a person’s body will respond to the sawdust; for some WW, their lungs seem more sensitive and react strongly to even a small amount of sawdust exposure, other guys will say they’ve been in a shop with no DC for years and don’t have any problems. The absolute risk of cancer is pretty small, but the risk of COPD or restrictive lung disease is much greater, again depending on your exposure and on the way your own body reacts. As both COPD and restrictive lung disease are mediated by the immune system, I’d imagine that certain woods, as you mentioned, can be a greater trigger. I’ve seen enough people in my life with lung disease, and came inside from the shop coughing enough times to make DC my priority.

-- Sometimes the creative process requires foul language. -- Charles Neil

View longgone's profile


5688 posts in 4365 days

#4 posted 11-21-2011 06:27 PM

I believe in preventative measures instead of hindsight. Nothing good can come from breathing sawdust and I personally like breathing fresh air and have always practiced deep breathing techniques.
Some wood types are more toxic than others and some people have quite adverse reactions to some.
The sculpting I like doing creates a lot of dust..more than my regular woodwork ….and therefore I take extra measures.
I have a 3 HP Odeida cyclone in my shop in addition to a Jet air filter and three homemade air cleaners I built from squirrel cage fan motors. I still get alot of dust and additionally I use a Trend Air Shield Pro (or as my wife describes it…my Darth Vader Helmet).

View Bertha's profile


13615 posts in 3750 days

#5 posted 11-21-2011 06:38 PM

It’s definitely bad; how bad, I’m not sure we know. You have to consider what’s IN the wood, outside of the wood itself. There may be mold, chemicals, who knows what. I had a raging reaction to bocote once. It started as itching in the elbow creases, then went on to full body hives. I fought with it for 6 months.

-- My dad and I built a 65 chev pick up.I killed trannys in that thing for some reason-Hog

View Paul Mayer's profile

Paul Mayer

1154 posts in 4122 days

#6 posted 11-21-2011 06:50 PM

This is a great thread, and I am glad you initiated it, Rich. There is always a huge spectrum of opinions and experiences on this topic. I should have also mentioned that I lost a non-smoking cousin many years ago who operated a cabinet shop. No dust collection and he died of lung cancer. I realize there are other variables, such as radon exposure, but it woke me up. My son also has dust allergies and asthma, so I owe it to him to minimize his exposure, particularly since my shop is attached to the house.

Greg’s quote “nothing good can come from breathing sawdust” is consistent with my own feeling on this topic. I recently upgraded to a cyclone, and reworked my ducts to take advantage of the additional suction. The difference compared to my previous 1.5HP single stage dust collector is remarkable. I have spent a couple weeks in the shop since the upgrade, and I no longer taste dust as I am working, and don’t lye in bed at night with plugged sinuses from exposure. Plus, I no longer find fine dust drifting into the house. My clothes are less loaded up when I walk in the house, etc.

-- Paul Mayer,

View richgreer's profile


4541 posts in 4131 days

#7 posted 11-21-2011 07:03 PM

I am not a smoker and one of the reasons is that I have had a good look at how painful lung cancer can be. It has to be one of the most painful ways to leave this world.

The prospects of suffering lung cancer because of my woodworking gives me pause.

Thank you each for your contributions to, what I consider to be, an important topic.

-- Rich, Cedar Rapids, IA - I'm a woodworker. I don't create beauty, I reveal it.

View Gene Howe's profile

Gene Howe

12314 posts in 4485 days

#8 posted 11-21-2011 07:11 PM

Been breathing the stuff for years. I’ll wear a mask when working MDF, though. Don’t work anything but domestic hardwood, MDF and plywood from who knows where.
Sometimes, I forget to shut off the DC when I leave the shop for a few minutes. I’m amazed at how much clearer the air is when I return.
I have worked some spalted stuff and always wore a mask, then. I’m a little leery about fungi.
Someday, I may get around to making an air cleaner.

-- Gene 'The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.' G. K. Chesterton

View CartersWhittling's profile


454 posts in 3730 days

#9 posted 11-21-2011 07:23 PM

Thank you for the post. I am only starting wood working, so I want to take the precatutions now before it is too late. I am deffinitly going to do some upgrading to my DC, especially now that the cooler weather is coming. While it was still warm out, I often opened too large garage doors on either side of my shop which quickly blew away a lot of the dust. Now that its cooler I need to keep the doors closed. I now in my experience walnut dust always bothers my nose, and I take extra precautions with it over other domestic woods, maple, oak, cherry, pine. Another simple preventative which hasn’t been discused yet is to get a good dust mask, especially if the DC you have is not great yet.

-- And whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as to the Lord... Colossians 3:23

View Dan's profile


3653 posts in 3937 days

#10 posted 11-21-2011 07:45 PM

Some people smoke their whole lives and never get lung cancer and some people who have never smoked get lung cancer… Hard to figure that one out..

As for the sawdust its my opinion that breathing in a little saw dust is not the end of the world. Good dust collecting systems are very expensive and probably out of a lot of peoples budget. I went the cheap way and learned how to use hand planes for smoothing boards. I hardly ever use my ROS or palm sander anymore which really helps keep the are born dust to a min. I have a DC hooked up to my TS and Planer and thats all. I rarely get clouds of dust in my shop..

-- Dan - "Collector of Hand Planes"

View CharlieM1958's profile


16292 posts in 5275 days

#11 posted 11-21-2011 08:03 PM

Here is a pretty informative piece I found online:

-- Charlie M. "Woodworking - patience = firewood"

View Lifesaver2000's profile


556 posts in 4169 days

#12 posted 11-21-2011 08:06 PM

Just so I don’t leave anyone with the impression that I think it is ok to breathe in the dust, I will detail what I do.

First, I have a 3m respirator with P100 filters that I wear pretty much all the time when I am in the shop. I currently use a shop vac with a HEPA filter for DC on my Table and Miter saws, and also for the router/router table.

If the temperature is anywhere near warm enough, I keep a steady flow of fresh air moving. Since the shop is only about 280 square feet, it doesn’t take much to keep the air fresh.

I do as much sanding and portable cutting as possible outside.

As often as possible the shop gets swept out, then I turn on the fan in one end of the shop with an open door on the other end, and use a high-speed blower to blow all the dust out from all the shelves, walls, ceiling and tools. By the time this is done, and the fan is allowed to work for a while to clear the air, the shop will look pretty much dust free. After it sits overnight, I will work without the mask if I am doing something that doesn’t produce sawdust. But, once I have made some dust, I won’t go without the mask for any length of time until I clean up again.

I know this is a lot of work compared to having a real DC, but it seems to be pretty effective. I am in fact very sensitive to dust and other airborne contaminants, so I think I would know if I was breathing any significant amount of dust. I credit the 3m respirator mostly for keeping my lungs clean. I do hope to upgrade to a better dust collection system, but I don’t think the DC system exists that can replace wearing a mask for at least some operations.

Oh, and like Dan I use hand planes for as much work as possible. Hard to breathe in those shavings!

View Neight's profile


112 posts in 3449 days

#13 posted 11-21-2011 08:06 PM

This one really got me thinking…
I grew up around my dad’s wood shop (he restored antique furniture for most of my life) with no DC system at all. He would wear a breather mask with fresh air delivery when stripping the pieces he got in to restore. There was only one mask though, and I was in and out a lot, so I am sure I got some heavy doses of those chemicals over the years. He died of ALS/Lyme disease this past March, and I took care of him while he was sick for nearly 10 years. He had such loyal customers, he got return business long after he quit the work. I actually refinished a few of those returning jobs myself. He and I have been around sawdust as long as I can remember. He had no lung issues to speak of, though ALS and Lyme disease can have some serious bad effects on the respiratory system. Here is the odd thing, his lung capacity was much larger than your average person. When his diaphragm muscles gave out and he could no longer breath sufficiently on his own, he was placed on a vent. His lung doctors were almost nervous about setting the vent at a level that made him comfortable, because most other people would have felt like their lungs were exploding at his settings… He also had a great tolerance for the suctioning that comes with being on a vent (mucous produced in the lungs has to be suctioned out, because of his weekended muscles). He would have to be in the hospital for various things, and the docs could not believe how well he could tolerate the suctioning process. It is no easy thing to have a tube shoved down into your lungs with negative pressure, but it really didn’t seem to bother him.
Personally, I think it depends on the person. Some are much more sensitive than others. Personally, I grew up around copious amounts of sawdust, have worked in a grain mill (there is absolutely NO escaping dust in a grain mill), cleaned out old moldy foreclosed homes for a living, sprayed basements will Killz paint to treat for mold (with nothing good to use for a breathing filter), worked in various metal shops with metal dust in the air, and various other jobs that are generally hazardous to one’s health (working in a meat processing plant in the grinding line is definitely a job where you hold your life in your own hands!). on top of all that, I have also been a smoker for the last 15 years. With all that said, I know I have a strong immune system, I rarely get sick, and none of those things have ever bothered me one bit, aside from some minor light-headedness from the killz paint overspray. The most odd thing is, I don’t tolerate filter masks very well, the hot air buildup in those things makes me feel stifled…
In my personal opinion, it varies from person to person, but that is no reason to take chances. right now, I have no DCS, as I am just getting started. I am working in my basement, and there is little ventilation down here. I have already seen the air thick with dust, and haven’t even had a decent cough as a result. As I can afford it, I will add what I can to help clean the air, but for now, it is what it is. A good DCS is a must, because if you don’t have your lungs, you don’t have your life, but I think the overall risk is based on each person’s immune system and genetics. Some are just more prone to issues than others. For me, it is much more important that I have clean air for my family. They are the most important thing in my life, and knowing that some are more sensitive than others, I do NOT want to risk their health even a little!
sorry for the length of this post, but I guess I had a lot to say on the subject…

-- Work consists of whatever a body is OBLIGED to do, and Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do. -Mark Twain

View Knothead62's profile


2600 posts in 4018 days

#14 posted 11-21-2011 08:16 PM

I wouldn’t recommend breathing any solid particulate. My father had a barber tell him that breathing the fine hair clippings can cause problems in the future. I wear a dust mask or respiratior when doing anything with dust.

View Dick, & Barb Cain's profile

Dick, & Barb Cain

8693 posts in 5356 days

#15 posted 11-21-2011 09:16 PM

I’ve mentioned this in another thread about dust collectors. I’ve noticed some people have a nice DC system, but end up using an air hose to remove dust from things. I think this defeats the purpose of a DC. “The fine dust is the most dangerous”.

By the way, this is a great thread.

-- -** You are never to old to set another goal or to dream a new dream ****************** Dick, & Barb Cain, Hibbing, MN.

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