The Presidents Turn,
In continuation of our discussion last month on wood and its toxicity, its important to understand the use of a toxicity chart or table. You can find one on the internet at Wood Allergies and Toxicity | The Wood Database and there are plenty others to be had on the “net”. We must use care in how we interpret the data and not just read what we want to read or worse we just assume we know what woods will affect us.
Just because any given wood is not listed on the chart, does not mean that it is completely safe to use. It simply means that adverse reactions have not been reported as of yet (the wood may be very obscure or unknown). One helpful thing to do if you have confirmed that you’re allergic to a specific species of wood, is to check for related species. Many times, a wood in a particular genus will share similar allergic compounds with other related woods, resulting in cross-reactions.
For example, Cocobolo is in the Dalbergia genus, and is also closely related to other woods such as Kingwood, Tulipwood, Honduran Rosewood, etc. Also, you may notice two wood types that sound like they’re related, such as Black Cherry (Prunus genus) and Brazilian Cherry (Hymenaea genus), but they are actually quite unrelated.
All inhaled wood dust is hazardous to your long-term health. A chart simply lists specific woods that can aggravate symptoms through allergic reactions, or woods that are outright toxic in and of themselves. However, all woods produce fine dust when worked, which in turn can damage your lungs and cause a number of other adverse health reactions. (This particular health issue—and the unhealthy buildup of such dusts in small woodworking or hobbyist shops—has been dealt with at length on Bill Pentz’ website.)
A common question: is this wood safe to use as a plate/bowl/cutting board/etc.? Despite the very long list of woods available, very few woods are actually toxic in and of themselves. But what a great number of woods do have the potential to do is cause allergic reactions in sensitive individuals. This risk for finished wood projects is greatly lessened (but not eliminated) with the application of a food-safe finish. In the end, using almost any wood is a calculated risk, and the question boils down to this: how much of a potential risk am I comfortable with? 1 in 10? 1 in 1,000? 1 in 1,000,000?
In our next discussion, we will look at our local woods and discuss those most commonly found in our shops.
To be continued….