Wood Dust, Breathing Difficulties, and Personal Protection

Personal accounts make clear that wood dust can bring on breathing problems, and that both shop-wide and individual protective steps are appropriate. August 29, 2006

I have worked in a cabinet shop with no dust collection for the last ten years. In the last two years, I have developed severe breathing problems, including shortness of breath. I have been to four different doctors this year. They all say my x-rays look fine and sinus congestion is the problem. My sinuses are clear with medication, but I still feel like a fish out of water. Can you help me? I can't afford all these trips to the doctor.

Forum Responses
(Dust Collection and Safety Equipment Forum)
From contributor R:
I can only tell you my own experience. I've been diagnosed with some breathing problems including late onset asthma (as opposed to childhood asthma). I hadn't had an asthma attack for many years, but in December, after much more shop work than I've done in years and with particularly dusty conditions, I had a two day attack.

I also have chronic sinus congestion and post-nasal drip, but that has been present for more than 20 years with no real solution except prescription allergy medication when the problem is worst (usually Spring and Fall). Dust does appear to intensify the lung congestion from the sinus problem - perhaps because it aggravates my sinuses or maybe just because it makes a thicker goo (so to speak).

For various reasons, I haven't been in the shop much the past month, but when I do spend any time working, I tend to have some spells of asthma-like coughing. All of this (especially the asthma attack), has pushed me to accelerate putting in a dust control system and to make it as effective as I can (many thanks to this forum among other sources). It seems very clear that there is a direct relationship between the dust and my breathing problems. And we know that wood dust is a carcinogen.

I've been using a shop vac and filter masks, but that obviously isn't sufficient to avoid the problems with my current shop activity. Also, I haven't smoked in over 20 years, so that is not a current contributor.

Lung problems are not something to ignore. I have spent months almost completely incapacitated, unable to draw a deep breath, constantly fighting for air, feeling like my lungs are half full of gunk. I don't ever want to have that feeling again.

From contributor M:
"I have worked in a cabinet shop with no dust collection for the last ten years."

If I were you, I would insist that the company you work for install a proper dust collection system right away. If they don't want to do that, I'd find another job.

From contributor O:
I would try some disposable dust mask for starters, for only 2 bucks. If that helps, I would buy more dust mask.

From contributor T:
My friend, what were you thinking? 10 years with no dust controls! First of all, get a cartridge mask like spray painters wear and wear it whenever a machine is turned on. Any other so-called dust mask is risky. Wear it even if the machine has a dust collector. If you can smell wood, the dust is getting to your lungs. I have a big cyclone and a big downdraft table, both with 1 micron filters and I still wear a cartridge mask. Try it for a month at least. The sinuses should clear up. Good luck with your health.

From contributor D:
Your company risks fines for non-compliance! Believe me, if they were reported they would be saving money to install an adequate and all-reaching collection system of some kind, rather it be central, individual or a combination of the two. My advice is either get out of there, or protect yourself - your situation is serious. Also, I might add, protect your eyes and ears!

From contributor C:
Is there anything we can do to clean our lungs?

From contributor D:
Yes! Get away from the contaminants, and do heavy breathing exercises in good air, cool with moderate humidity. You may experience coughing up as the exercise forces breakup. Sounds like a touch of bronchitis, which is an inflammation of bronchial tubes and branches. Do you have access to a sauna? Dry heat with a little water thrown on the hot stones.

Do you smoke? If so, quit. If you fail, try again. If you're lucky, the inflammation is strictly being caused by the shop. Oak is especially irritating to lungs and a carcinogen. At home, it is important to control humidity. Heating your home without a humidifier dries the air, thus your nose and associated tubes. If one is not in the system, buy one and use it, especially in the bedroom where you sleep.

From contributor J:
Finisher for 30+ years and developed mild asthma after 15. Doc gave me a bronchial dilator (Albuterol) for the acute attacks. I keep one close by. The combination of this medication and absolute diligence with respect to using and *maintaining* respirators is key to controlling the asthma. Never enter the booth area without cartridge respirator. Always wear at least a 2 strap 3M or better dust mask when entering the shop. It is a pain, I know, but you must get used to using them. At this point, I never feel right without one and can't dig into the work. Post-nasal drip and sinusitis caused by wood dust will also aggravate lung problems, as the sinus and lungs are a connected system. I know this sounds rude, but douching the sinuses with saline daily (snort it right up the nose until it runs down your throat) is a way of maintaining sinus health and can reduce the drip and clear dust that always ends up there. Asthma and breathing disorders are immune related, so take care of the rest of yourself. Get some fresh air as often as possible and get your heart rate up for 20 minutes every other day. You would be amazed at what a little exercise will do for your lung health. And by all means, get off the butts, and for those of you who like to "burn one," besides turning yourself into an idiot for a few hours, you are really ripping your lungs to shreds.

From contributor G:
I'm a fit and healthy 37 year old. I play a lot of hockey. Last winter I developed asthma for the first time ever. I was working with red cedar a lot at the time, doing external trim on a big job. The doc put me on Advair, a new drug for asthma, which worked great, but is expensive. I have a shop with no DC yet, but I use a canister type mask whenever dust is about and that cuts down on my symptoms. Got to get a DC up soon, though. I hear that red cedar is one of the worst for irritating.