Allergies, asthma, dust collection, and breathing protection.

Woodworkers talk about ways to cope with sensitivity to sawdust. February 12, 2009

I'm just curious if any of you fellow cabinetmakers have asthma. I had it pretty severely as a child and have been wondering if my choice of occupation will make it come back due to the dusts/fumes.

I have basic dust collection (portable units) and wear a mask but I can't avoid breathing some dust. So, if you have asthma, are you still able to run your business? Does breathing dust worsen it? I’m just curious what I can expect if I stay in.

Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)
From contributor D:
I have asthma also as well as my children. The only time it really seems to bother me is when I am spraying in the booth. Some woods bother me more than others. Once you learn which ones to avoid without a mask, you should be ok but everyone is different. I have actually built up a tolerance over the last few years.

From contributor A:
I had it more as a kid as well. Now I only get it when I'm around cats. I believe it's the dander. Currently, I'm full time cabinetmaker and it really doesn't bother me at all. I have good dust collection and only wear a mask when sanding with an orbital. If anything, I think you become somewhat desensitized to it after time. As far as wood dust being toxic (causing cancer) it is probably just as detrimental to you as it is to someone without asthma. I do know that certain people are allergic to certain woods. Some woods more than others.

From contributor S:
I have a real hard time with cedar, red and yellow. I went to the doctor because of a chronic sore throat and he said I had occupational asthma. I took antibiotics and it cleared up, and a couple months later it was back. My choice was to keep taking pills which I would rather not do, or put up with it. Career change is not an option because I just like it too much. I wear a mask and use dust collectors. I can't stand the smell of oak anymore, or ash for that matter. There are about a dozen exotics I can work with no problem, but once in a while one pops up that takes away your good night’s sleep for a week or so. As for breathing dust making your asthma worse, it certainly wouldn't help. My miracle cure for the sore throats was to have a popsicle before bed, believe it or not.

From contributor J:
An obvious thing like stated above is to have a good dust collection system off every machine. But something that is often overlooked but is the most dust producing activity in the shop is sanding. So I would recommend getting a sander that attaches to a vacuum.

There are several brands that are made for sander dust extraction. Just don't try hooking up a sander to a cheap shop vacuum unless you want to go deaf and not have the best dust collection. The image below is the bag out of my Festool vacuum that I just changed.

This bag has three months of the finest and most harmful dust. After changing it I realized all of this dust could have been in my lungs and all over the shop. I bought my current sanding setup after suffering for months with bronchitis and shortness of breath. Now all breathing issues are gone and my shop is cleaner.

Click here for full size image

From contributor A:
I have moderately severe allergic reactions to certain (generally) tropical hardwood dust. I use a 2 HP dust collector with a 2.5 micron filter, and this still won’t do it with drum sanding. I recently had a very bad experience drum sanding mahogany, and have resorted to wearing a 3M dual cartridge respirator (52P71)which completely resolves the problem.

From contributor S:
Has anyone ever used one of those hoods that covers your whole head, and blows fresh air through while filtering any dust?

From contributor R:
I don't have asthma but every now and then I have a reaction to certain woods. Mahogany is one. Cedar is just so fine I have to wear a mask. It is such an irritant. The big thing I would watch out for are the MDF's and particle board. Make sure you use formaldehyde free MDF and some of the resins in plywood also contain it.

It never fails if I get stuck with an MDF job no matter how good the dust collection is you always breathe some of it and I get severe bronchitis from it. I couldn't imagine having asthma on top of that. Dust collection is definitely key as is good shop ventilation.

From contributor K:
I just went through some breathing problems in the last four months, and it was horrible. It turned out I didn't have asthma and it made me wonder how you guys go through that all the time.

Anyway, I am kind of a holistic guy and I came up with a few solutions that the doctors couldn't. Obviously the mask will be the best deterrent, but what about what gets through the mask? I found that using a Neti Pot (Walgreens comes with prepared packets of a saline type solution, read the directions) at night about an hour before bed clears your nose of all that buildup. My grandfather was a surgeon/woodworker and he used to snort saltwater afterwards. I tried this for years, but it was way harsh. Neti Pot works great.

You would be surprised to see how well you breathe with a clear nose. I also have a deviated septum which aggravates the situation. As for the lungs, I found that the lacquer/thinner fumes were building up toxicity in my liver which affected my breathing. Two things worked for me. One, I called 3M to make sure I was using the proper masks with the proper charcoal filters and found that I wasn't - for 5 years. I also found out that lacquer/thinner fumes were entering through the eyes and skin. In the summertime I used to spray with shorts on so it would come through my legs. So I now wear a full face mask, wear pants and long shirts, and not to forget the 8 mil. powder-free nitrile gloves.

The second thing I did was to start taking Blue Green Algae from Klamath (enzyme enhanced) as directed by my reflexologist. You can get it at any health store. The algae is a tremendous detoxifier and the day I started taking it and wearing all of the protective gear, I started breathing better. After four months of shortness of breath, I was better in a day. I guess the point is to protect yourself best you can, but learn what to do if some of that stuff gets past the protection. I went to the doctors for testing and it cost me $1,400 and you know what they found after blood work, urinalysis, chest x-rays, and asthma testing - nothing. To them I was in perfect health, but I knew there was something wrong.