Health Effects From Exposure to Wood Dust (CH045)

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Health Effects From Exposure to 

Wood Dust 



Workers can be exposed to wood dust at all stages of wood processing. 

For many years, wood dust was considered to be a nuisance dust that 

irritated the nose, eyes, or throat, but did not cause permanent health 

problems. Numerous recent studies, however, have shown that 

exposure to wood dust can cause health problems. 


Wood is classified as either softwood or hardwood. Softwoods come 

from coniferous trees such as spruce, pine, and fir. More than 90 

percent of the woods used in Alberta’s forestry industry are 



Hardwoods come from deciduous trees such as oak, alder, and maple. 

Alberta hardwoods are mainly poplar and aspen and are used in the 

pulp and paper industries and the manufacture of strandboard.  


Secondary industries such as construction and furniture make use of a 

wider variety of woods.  Many of these woods are imported from 

British Columbia and elsewhere. Of these, western red cedar is the 

wood of most concern. Its exposure-related health effects are well 

documented. Table 1 summarizes the types of woods used and wood 

products made in Alberta. 




























Numerous recent 

studies, however, 

have shown that 

exposure to wood 

dust can cause health 










CH045 — Chemical Hazards 

Revised August 2009 

Table 1  Woods used in Alberta 





Woods Used 


Woods From 

Construction, housing 


Alberta, B.C. 


Lodgepole, Jack pine 



Western red cedar 



Balsam, Alpine fir 



Laminated beams and engineered 

Douglas fir 

Alberta, B.C. 

wood products 




Furniture, cabinetry 

Red oak 

USA, eastern Canada 













White pine 

B.C., eastern Canada 






Plywood Spruce 







Laminated products, hybrid products 

(used in furniture making) 







South America, Asia 
















Oriented strandboard 




Pulp and paper, kraft mills 








Pulp and paper, mechanical mills 








Windows and doors 


USA, eastern Canada 









Toys Aspen 





Firewood Birch 


Carvings, baskets, native crafts 







Variety of other softwoods 

Alberta and imported 


Data provided by Alberta Economic Development 

CH045 — Chemical Hazards 

Revised August 2009 




CH045 — Chemical Hazards 

Revised August 2009 


The health effects from exposure to wood dust are due to chemicals in 

the wood or chemical substances in the wood created by bacteria, 

fungi, or moulds. Coughing or sneezing are caused by the dust itself. 

Dermatitis and asthma may be due to sensitivities to chemicals found 

in the wood. Plicatic acid, for example, found naturally in western red 

cedar, is responsible for asthma reactions and allergic effects 

associated with the wood.  Workers exposed to wood dust need to 

understand the potential health effects of such exposure and take 

precautions to reduce their exposure. 



Toxic effects 


Toxic woods contain chemicals that may be absorbed into the body 

through the skin, lungs, or digestive system and cause effects in other 

parts of the body. Health effects can include headaches, giddiness, 

weight loss, breathlessness, cramps, and irregular heart beat. Toxic 

woods are typically hardwoods such as yew, teak, oleander, 

laburnum, and mansonia. None of the native woods harvested in 

Alberta are known to be toxic or poisonous.  Table 2 summarizes the 

health effects reported for exposures to various types of wood. 



Irritation of the eyes, nose and 



Many hardwoods and softwoods contain chemicals that can irritate 

the eyes, nose and throat, causing shortness of breath, dryness and 

soreness of the throat, sneezing, tearing and conjunctivitis 

(inflammation of the mucous membranes of the eye). Wood dust 

usually collects in the nose, causing sneezing and a runny nose 

(rhinitis). Other observed effects include nosebleeds, an impaired 

sense of smell, and complete nasal blockage. 










The health effects of 

exposure to wood 

dust are due to 

chemicals in the wood 

or chemical 

substances in the 

wood created by 

bacteria, fungi, or 

















































CH045 — Chemical Hazards 

Revised August 2009 



Chemicals in many types of wood can cause dermatitis, a condition in 

which the skin can become red, itchy, or dry, and blisters may develop. 

Wood dust in direct contact with the skin can also cause dermatitis. 

With repeated exposures, a worker can become sensitized to the dust 

and develop allergic dermatitis. Once a worker becomes sensitized, 

exposure to small amounts of dust can cause a reaction that becomes 

more severe with repeated exposures.  


Allergic dermatitis is most often caused by exposure to tropical 

hardwoods such as obeche, mahogany, and rosewoods. Cases of 

allergic dermatitis resulting from exposure to Douglas fir and western 

red cedar have been reported. Irritant dermatitis has also been 

reported with exposure to western hemlock, sitka spruce, pine, and 

paper birch. 



Respiratory system effects 


Respiratory system effects due to wood dust exposure include 

decreased lung capacity and allergic reactions in the lungs. Two types 

of allergic reaction can take place in the lungs: hypersensitivity 

pneumonitis (inflammation of the walls of the air sacs and small 

airways) and occupational asthma. 


Decreased lung capacity is caused by mechanical or chemical 

irritation of lung tissue by the dust. This irritation causes the airways 

to narrow, reducing the volume of air taken into the lungs and 

producing breathlessness. It usually takes a long time to see a 

reduction in lung capacity.  


Studies showed that sawmill workers exposed to softwood dusts 

arising from Douglas fir, western hemlock, spruce, balsam, and alpine 

fir had reduced lung function. In a 1995 study which looked at a 

group of sawmill workers in Alberta who were processing pine and 

spruce for a least three years, workers who smoked and were exposed 

to wood dust were more greatly affected than workers who did not 

smoke. This condition can worsen during the work week and improve 

during a worker’s days off. Over the long term, some workers may 

develop a permanent decrease in lung function (chronic obstructive 

lung disease). 






























Respiratory system 

effects due to wood 

dust exposure include 

decreased lung 

capacity and allergic 

reactions in the lungs.


























CH045 — Chemical Hazards 

Revised August 2009 


Hypersensitivity pneumonitis appears to be triggered when small 

particles penetrate deeply into the lungs where they trigger an allergic 

response. Particles that are known or suspected to cause this condition 

include moulds, bacteria, and the fine dust from some tropical 

hardwoods. The initial effects can develop within hours or after 

several days following exposure and are often confused with flu or 

cold symptoms (headache, chills, sweating, nausea, breathlessness, and 

other fever symptoms).  Tightness of the chest and breathlessness 

often occur and can be severe. With exposure over a long period of 

time, this condition can worsen, causing permanent damage to the 

lungs. The walls of the air sacs thicken and stiffen, making breathing 



Some diseases that have been classified as hypersensitivity 

pneumonitis include maple bark strippers’ disease, sequoiosis (from 

breathing redwood dust containing mould particles), wood trimmers’ 

disease, and wood-pulp workers’ disease. These diseases are caused 

by moulds growing on the wood rather than the wood dust itself.  The 

mould spores become airborne when wood chips are moved, lumber 

is trimmed, and bark is stripped. 


Asthma involves a narrowing of the airways which results in 

breathlessness. Coughing and a runny nose can also develop. One of 

the most studied woods with respect to wood-dust related asthma is 

western red cedar. It has been estimated that at least five percent of 

forest industry workers in British Columbia exposed to cedar dust are 

allergic to it. The first symptoms of asthma due to exposure to western 

red cedar usually begin late at night and resemble a cold (eye and nose 

irritation, stuffiness, runny nose, dry cough, and tightness in the chest). 

Eye and nose irritation can slowly improve, leaving wheezing and 

coughing as the only symptoms.  With prolonged exposure, wheezing 

and coughing happen during the day as well. In some cases, the asthma 

attacks can start after only a few weeks of contact with cedar dust.  



























These diseases are 

caused by moulds 

growing on the wood 

rather than the wood 

dust itself.












It has been estimated 

that at least five 

percent of forest 

industry workers in 

British Columbia 

exposed to cedar dust 

are allergic to it.











Table 2 Health Effects Reported with Various Types of Woods 


Wood Type 



Health Effects 

Alder (common, black, red) 

Europe, North America (red)  

Western Asia 

Toys, general turnery, broom and brush 


Dermatitis associated with black alder, no reports with red 

alder, decrease in lung function (red alder) 

Aspen North 



strandboard, pulp and paper 

No health effects reported 

Beech Europe 


bobbins, brush backs, handles, 

domestic woodware, flooring, plywood 

manufacture, instruments 

Dermatitis (wood cutters’ disease) due to lichens growing 

on the bark of beech trees, rhinitis, asthma, nasal cancer 

Birch (paper, white) 

US and Canada (paper birch) 

Europe (white birch) 

Furniture, decorative objects, pulp and 


Irritant dermatitis 

Cedar, Western Red 

West Coast of North America 

Building construction material, boats, 

planking, framing 

Asthma, allergic contact dermatitis, sensitizer, decrease in 

lung function, eye irritation and conjunctivitis, rhinitis 

Douglas Fir 

West coast of North America, 


Interior and exterior construction, flooring, 

boats, veneer, furniture 

Contact eczema, decrease in lung capacity 

Fir (grand, balsam, silver, 


US and Canada 

Europe (silver fir) 

Interior construction, joiner, plywood 

Skin irritation, dermatitis, rhinitis, asthma, possible 

decrease in lung function 


North America 

Furniture, cabinetry 

Skin irritation, decreased lung function 


Europe, North America 

Construction, frame work, boats, flooring 

Allergic dermatitis from European larch, no reports with 

western larch 

Mahogany Africa 


cabinetry, boats, mouldings, etc.- 

all purpose wood, used where good quality 

wood is required 

Dermatitis, sensitizer 


Europe, North America 

Furniture, interior construction, cabinets  

Rhinitis, asthma, Maple Bark Strippers’ Disease (mould 

spores in bark) 


Europe, North America 

Furniture, decorative veneer 

Nasal cancer 

Pine (white, lodgepole, jack) 

Europe, North America 

Interior and exterior construction, pulp and 


Skin irritation, contact dermatitis, Wood-Pulp Workers’ 

Disease (mould in bark), rhinitis, and asthma 


Europe, North America 

Plywood, matches, toys, pulp and paper 

Contact dermatitis (with sawdust contact), rhinitis 


South America, Asia 

Decorative veneer, furniture, cabinets 


Eczema, allergic contact dermatitis 


Europe, North America 

Interior and exterior construction, furniture, 

pulp and paper 

Skin irritation, Wood-Pulp Workers’ Disease (mould 

spores in bark), decrease in lung function 


Asia, Africa, West Indies 

Ship building, interior fittings and mouldings, 

furniture, flooring 

Toxic, dermatitis, sensitizer 

Walnut (black) 

Europe, US 

Veneer, cabinet making, furniture, 

decorative paneling, gun stocks 

Skin irritation, rhinitis, possible asthma 

Irritation of skin, dermatitis, toxic 


Europe, Asia, North Africa 

Carving, veneer, cabinet making 






CH045 — Chemical Hazards 

Revised August 2009 


Most workers who develop cedar asthma do not have a history of 

allergies. Workers who develop cedar asthma may not recover 

completely when they are no longer exposed to cedar dust. In fact, 

asthma attacks can be triggered by other substances. Ash, oak, 

mahogany, and European species of spruce and pine have also been 

reported to cause asthma in some workers.  


Workers who are allergic to aspirin should be aware that willow and 

birch contain large concentrations of salicylic acid, the predecessor of 

aspirin. Sensitive individuals may react with only casual exposure to 

the woods. 





The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has 

classified wood dusts as carcinogenic to humans. A study completed in 

1965 observed that a large number of furniture workers and other 

workers exposed to wood dust in England developed a rare form of 

nasal cancer (adenocarcinoma). Since that time, many additional 

studies have shown that workers employed in logging, sawmills, 

furniture and cabinet making, and carpentry are at an increased risk of 

developing nasal cancer.  


The highest risks appear to be to those workers exposed to hardwood 

dusts, most commonly beech and oak. Many of the studies looked at 

workers exposed in the 1940s and 1950s (the cancer can take more 

than 20 years to develop), and most of the exposure levels were much 

higher than those seen in today’s industry. Most of the studies looked 

at workers who were exposed to unspecified types or mixtures of 

wood dust.  



Controlling exposure 


The most important factor affecting exposure to wood dust is the type 

of work being performed. Finer dusts produced by processes such as 

shaping, sanding, and routing are associated with higher exposure 

levels. The type and quantity of wood dust generated is also related to 

the density of the wood. Hardwoods are generally more dense than 

softwoods, and under similar conditions will usually produce more 


















IARC has classified 

wood dusts as 

carcinogenic to 




























CH045 — Chemical Hazards 

Revised August 2009 

dust. The freshness of the wood can also influence the amount of dust 

produced during processing, with dryer woods tending to produce 

more dust. Workers in logging operations, pulp mills and sawmills 

tend to use fresher woods; those employed in the furniture, cabinet, 

pattern, and model making industries tend to use drier woods. 


Exposure to wood dust can be controlled through the use of 

appropriately designed ventilation systems or respiratory protection. 

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) in 

the U.S. has developed guidelines for local ventilation systems for 

several types of wood working equipment (horizontal belt sanders, 

shapers, automated routers, large diameter disc sanders, orbital hand 

sanders, and table saws). This information is available from the 

NIOSH Web site at:



The NIOSH guidelines use local ventilation hoods to capture wood 

dust which is then collected in a filtration system. Good general 

ventilation can also reduce exposure to wood dust. Wood dust 

collecting within the building, on the floor, or on equipment, means 

that the ventilation system is inadequate or is not working properly. 


Local ventilation may not be practical for some operations and in some 

cases the concentration of wood dust in the air cannot be adequately 

controlled by ventilation alone. In such cases respiratory protection 

may be needed if the Occupational Exposure Limit for wood dust is or 

may be exceeded. 


For more information: 


Respiratory Protective Equipment – Employers Guide 


Guidelines for the Development of a Code of Practice for 

Respiratory Protective Equipment 










Exposure to wood 

dust can be controlled 

through the use of 


designed ventilation 

systems or respiratory 


































Contact us: 


Province-Wide Contact Centre 



Edmonton & surrounding 




Throughout Alberta: 





Deaf or hearing impaired 


In Edmonton:  780-427-9999 




throughout Alberta 


Web Site 





Getting copies of OHS Act, Regulation & Code: 



Queen’s Printer 




Edmonton  780-427-4952 




Workplace Health and Safety 









Call any Government of Alberta office toll-free 

Dial 310-0000, then the area code and telephone number you want to reach 

© 2009-2010, Government of Alberta, Employment and Immigration  


This material may be used, reproduced, stored or transmitted for non-commercial purposes. The source of this material must be 

acknowledged when publishing or issuing it to others. This material is not to be used, reproduced, stored or transmitted for 

commercial purposes without written permission from the Government of Alberta, Employment and Immigration. This material is to 

be used for information purposes only no warranty express or implied is given as to the accuracy or the timeliness of the material 

presented. In case of any inconsistency between this document and the Occupational Health and Safety Legislation, the legislation will 

always prevail.



CH045 — Chemical Hazards 

Revised August 2009 

Document Outline

  • Health Effects From Exposure to Wood Dust
    • Table 1  Woods used in Alberta
  • Toxic effects
  • Irritation of the eyes, nose and throat
  • Dermatitis
  • Respiratory system effects
  • Cancer
  • Controlling exposure
  • Guidelines for the Development of a Code of Practice for Respiratory Protective Equipment
  • Province-Wide Contact Centre
  • Web Site
  • Queen’s Printer
  • Workplace Health and Safety

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