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A Tale of Toxic Timbers

A salutary lesson in health and safety matters.

Just before Christmas 2004 I was introduced to the world famous wood turner Alan Beecham who is not only famed for the extremely high quality and intricacy of his work, he is also a member of, and adjudicator for, the Guild of Craftsmen.

Alan very kindly showed me some examples of his work, which to say the least are simply "breath taking" in their workmanship, but I'm getting off the point here. A cautionary health and safety tale involving the inhalation of wood dust and a subsequent health scare happened to Alan about a year ago - let me explain:

In the pursuance of his wood turning career Alan likes to use many exotic timbers especially many of the varieties of Mahogany and tropical hardwoods. It so happens that Alan had been doing a project involving mahogany and he had been striving to achieve an almost glass like finish on the piece by sanding it on his flat bed lathe by hand with very fine finishing papers. Coupled with the relatively high turning speeds of the lathe and the fine grade of the finishing papers, the work naturally produced a fair amount of wood dust. Unfortunately Alan doesn't like to work wearing a dust mask and normally he has an industrial extractor system operating that removes the dust, but in this instance the extractor system had developed a problem and was awaiting the service engineer.

As the project Alan was working on was to a deadline he didn't have time to waste waiting for the service people so he got on with the task. Once he had finished the Mahogany piece he then got on with turning the next part of the project using a block of Padauk (which is a strongly red colored wood). He turned the piece perfectly and then he started on the finishing process, again using the high speed lathe and fine grade finishing papers. This quite naturally produced a fair amount of fine sanding dust.

While Alan was performing this sanding operation he began to get chest pains and shortage of breadth. These symptoms lasted all day, so when he finished his days work, Alan went to see his doctor. His doctor checked him out and concluded that Alan had had a heart attack. He sent him to the hospital for a thorough check out - they said that it looked like he'd had a heart attack, after all, he'd had most of the symptoms hadn't he? - but the strange thing was that he hadn't had ALL of the symptoms. Another thing is that Alan is a health fanatic and has never smoked and is incredibly fit, his work is non stressful and he is a vegetarian and only drinks alcohol in strict moderation, so what could have brought on a heart attack?

Well, it transpires that a friend of Alan's who is an Aikido instructor and learnt his art in Japan remembered being told about the toxic effects caused by splinters of certain exotic hardwoods making the recipients of the splinters extremely ill. Alan's friend researched the effects these woods have on the human body and found in some old Government white papers that the dust from these woods can give you symptoms similar to the symptoms of a heart attack!

Alan took these findings along to the relevant medical bodies, but at first they were reluctant to accept that he had suffered a toxic poisoning incident, but after some research they are now beginning to acknowledge that it may well have been a toxic poisoning situation however they are reserving judgment for the moment. A few weeks after this heart attack incident Alan then suffered most of the effects of a stroke! Is it a coincidence or very bad luck – or the results of toxic poisoning caused by breathing in the very fine sanding dust of those woods?

The medical authorities have yet to verify the authenticity of the stated symptoms caused by the sanding dust of the aforementioned woods, but, I would say that when I met Alan a few weeks ago he seemed very well to me and has hopefully fully overcome these health problems, but out of this unfortunate story comes an obvious health warning – if you are using any of these exotic hardwoods please do OBSERVE the health warnings we offer you on our ‘Health and Safety’ page – unfortunately for Alan he wasn’t aware of the health problems associated with these woods at that time!


In addition to the above story we would like to give you some information made available by the U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regarding human health hazards associated with hardwoods. (However, there is one softwood they identify that’s particularly hazardous to human health and that is western red cedar. They state that the health effects appear to be related to the concentration of tannin and similar compounds in the wood.)

OSHA informs us that the health effects associated with wood dust come not only from the wood dust itself but also (and we think this is most important) from biological organisms such as MOULD and FUNGI which grow on the wood, and chemicals such as FORMALDEHYDE, copper naphthanate, and pentachlorophenol used in the processing of some woods.

Wood dust is classified by OSHA as a hazardous chemical. In December 2002, the Department of Health and Human Services released a report listing wood dust created when machinery and tools are used to cut, shape, and particularly FINISH wood, as a known carcinogen.

We, at the Redbridge Marquetry Group offer our thanks to the U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for making the above information available in the public domain. We acknowledge their authorship of all the relevant papers and of their valuable research into all matters concerned with Health and Safety.

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