by Eric Meier

“Not to omit any one of them, the yew is similar to these other trees in general appearance . . . It is an ascertained fact that travellers’ vessels, made in Gaul of this wood, for the purpose of holding wine, have caused the death of those who used them.”

–Pliny the Elder, from Naturalis Historia, ca. 77 AD

Looking at the above quotation, (taken from a writing nearly two thousand years old), ought to bring—at the very least—a small bit of respect and attention to the matter of safety as it pertains to wood toxicity. If this subject has been known and reported as “ascertained fact” since ancient history, how much more ought we to take heed in modern times, considering that we have so many more well-developed means of communication and testing?

Wood Toxicity and Allergen Chart

Below you’ll find a chart of various wood species, along with their reported effects and properties. The information on this chart has been compiled from many sources, with references given at the bottom. When viewing the chart, please keep the follow in mind:

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 (listed at the end of each wood profile page). 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. This 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 below, 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?

Wood Species

Reaction

Area(s) Affected

Potency

Abura irritant, nausea, and giddiness
African Blackwood irritant, sensitizer
African Boxwood irritant, headache, asthma
Afrormosia irritant, nervous system effects, asthma, splinters go septic
Afzelia irritant, sneezing
Agba irritant
Ailanthus irritant
Albizia irritant, nausea, pink eye, giddiness, nose bleeds
Alder (Alnus genus) irritant
Alligator Juniper irritant

Alpine Ash irritant
Amboyna irritant, asthma

Andiroba irritant, sneezing
Araracanga irritant, asthma
Ash (Fraxinus genus) irritant
Ash, Mountain irritant
Australian Blackwood irritant, sensitizer, asthma
Australian Cashew Nut irritant, skin lesions, nosebleeds
Avodire irritant, nose bleeds, internal bleeding, asthma
Balsa irritant
Bamboo irritant
Birch (Betula genus) irritant, sensitizer, nausea
Black Cherry wheezing, giddiness
Black Locust irritant, nausea
Blackbean irritant
Bloodwood irritant, excessive thirst, salivation, nausea
Bloodwood, Red (Australian) irritant
Blue Gum irritant
Blue Mahoe sneezing
Bocote cross reactions possible once sensitivity  to other woods have developed
Bosse irritant, sensitizer, asthma, nausea, headache
Box, White irritant, rash
Boxwood irritant, sensitizer
Brazilwood irritant, headache, nausea, swelling skin, blisters
Brigalow (Acacia harpophylla) irritant
Brownheart irritant
Bubinga irritant, lesions
Buckthorn irritant, sap can cause dermatitis
Bulletwood irritant
Camphor irritant, asthma, headaches, giddiness
Cashew irritant, sensitizer
Catalpa irritant
Cedar, Alaskan Yellow irritant
Cedar, Aromatic Red irritant

Cedar, Atlantic White irritant
Cedar, Australian Red irritant, asthma, migraine, giddiness, bronchitis, stomach cramps, NPC (rare)
Cedar, Incense irritant, rashes
Cedar of Lebanon irritant, asthma, respiratory disorders
Cedar, Northern White irritant, asthma
Cedar, Port Orford irritant, runny nose, asthma, kidney problems (diuresis)
Cedar, Spanish irritant
Cedar, Southern Red irritant
Cedar, Western Red irritant, sensitizer, asthma, nervous system effects, NPC (rare)
Chechen irritant, sensitizer
Chestnut, Chinese (Castanea mollissima) irritant
Chestnut, Sweet irritant, sensitizer
Chico Zapote irritant (nasal)
Chinaberry irritant, headaches
Cocobolo irritant, sensitizer, nausea, asthma, pink eye
Cocuswood irritant
Coolibah irritant
Copaia irritant
Crow’s Ash irritant
Cuban Mahogany irritant

Cypress sensitizer
Cypress, Australian irritant, asthma, swelling of eyelids, boils, NPC (rare)
Cypress, Gowen irritant
Cypress, Leyland irritant
Cypress, Mediterranean irritant, rashes, headaches
Cypress, Mexican irritant
Cypress, Monterey irritant
Dahoma irritant, sensitizer
Dead Finish (Acacia tetragonophylla) irritant, splinters go septic
Djohar irritant, skin discoloration, keratitis
Douglas-fir irritant, giddiness, splinters go septic, nausea
Ebony (Diospyros genus) irritant, sensitizer, pink eye
Ebony, Brown irritant
Ebony, Macassar irritant, sensitizer
Ekki irritant
Elm (Ulmus genus) irritant, sensitizer, NPC (rare)
European Beech irritant, sensitizer, NPC (rare)
Eyoum irritant
Fir (Abies genus) irritant
Fir, Balsam irritant
Freijo irritant, sensitizer, dryness/thirst
Garapa irritant
Gedu Nohor irritant
Goncalo Alves sensitizer
Grasstree irritant
Greenheart sensitizer, wheezing, splinters go septic, cardiac and intestinal disorders
Guanacaste irritant
Gum, Lemon-Scented irritant
Gum, Spotted irritant, rashes
Gum, Yellow irritant
Hackberry irritant
Hemlock, Eastern irritant
Hemlock, Mountain irritant
Hemlock, Western irritant, NPC (rare)
Hophornbeam irritant
Hornbeam (Carpinus genus) irritant
Idigbo irritant
Imbuia irritant
Indian Beech irritant
Indian Laurel irritant
Ipe irritant, headache, asthma, vision effects
Iroko irritant, sensitizer, asthma, boils, giddiness, HP
Ironwood, Desert irritant, sneezing, coughing
Jacareuba irritant, fainting, insomnia, kidney damage
Jarrah irritant
Jatoba irritant

Jelutong irritant
Juniper, Phoenician (Juniperus phoenicea) irritant, headache, nausea
Karri irritant
Katalox irritant
Keruing irritant
Kingwood irritant, sensitizer, pink eye
Koto irritant
Laburnum constitutional effects (nausea, vomiting, headaches); direct toxin N/A
Lacewood irritant
Larch (Larix genus) irritant, hives, lesions
Leadwood (Combretum genus) irritant
Lebbeck irritant
Lignum Vitae irritant
Limba irritant, hives, splinters go septic, asthma, bleeding of the nose and gums
Machiche irritant
Magnolia (Magnolia genus) asthma, runny nose
Mahogany, African irritant, sensitizer, NPC (rare)
Mahogany, Honduran irritant, sensitizer, boils, nausea, giddiness, asthma, HP
Mahogany, Santos irritant
Makore irritant, nausea, headache, giddiness, nervous system and blood effects
Mango irritant
Mansonia irritant, sensitizer, nausea, sneezing, headaches, nosebleeds, splinters go septic, asthma, giddiness, cardiac disorders
Maple (Acer genus) irritant, sensitizer, asthma; HP in spalted maple
Maple, Queensland irritant
Marupa irritant
Meranti (Shorea genus) irritant
Merbau irritant
Mesquite (Prosopis genus) irritant
Messmate irritant, asthma
Milky Mangrove sap is poisonous, causes irritation to eyes and/or temporary blindness, headache, burning of throat, blistering of skin
Mimosa irritant
Missanda irritant, headache, giddiness, nausea, disorders of bowels and stomach
Moabi irritant (mucous membranes)
Molopangady irritant, sores
Monkeypod irritant
Mora irritant
Movingui irritant
Muhuhu irritant

Mulga

(Acacia aneura)

irritant, headache, nausea, wood contains a virulent poisonous principle used for spear heads by aboriginals
Muninga irritant, asthma, bronchitis
Myrtle irritant, sensitizer
Myrtle, Tasmanian irritant
Narra irritant, asthma
New Zealand White Pine irritant
Norway Spruce irritant, asthma
Nyatoh irritant
Oak (Quercus genus) irritant, sensitizer, asthma, NPC (rare)
Obeche irritant, sensitizer, runny nose, hives, asthma
Okoume irritant, cough, asthma, pink eye
Oleander (Nerium oleander) irritant, nearly every part of the plant is toxic, cardiac effects
Olive irritant, sensitizer
Opepe irritant, sensitizer, nervous system effects
Osage Orange irritant, sap can cause dermatitis
Osage Orange, Argentine irritant, sap can cause dermatitis
Padauk (Pterocarpus genus) irritant, sensitizer, nausea, asthma
Palm (Arecaceae family) irritant, constitutional effects
Parinari (Parinari genus) irritant
Partridgewood irritant, hives, coughing
Pau Ferro irritant, sensitizer
Pau Marfim irritant
Pau Rosa irritant
Pau Santo irritant
Peroba Rosa irritant, sensitizer, nausea, asthma
Persimmon irritant
Pheasantwood cavities in the wood can contain powder that is an irritant
Pine (Pinus genus) irritant, runny nose, asthma
Pine, Huon irritant
Pistachio irritant
Poison Walnut bark irritating to skin, dust may cause asthma, nausea, giddiness, sap is toxic and corrosive
Poplar irritant, blisters, asthma, bronchitis
Primavera irritant, sensitizer
Purpleheart irritant, sensitizer, nausea
Quebracho irritant, nausea, NPC (rare)
Quina irritant
Ramin irritant, splinters go septic, asthma
Redwood irritant, sensitizer, asthma, HP, NPC (rare)
Rengas sap is strongly irritating, blisters, ulcers, fever, constitutional effects
Rhodesian Teak irritant
Rose Butternut irritant, pink eye
Rosewood (Dalbergia genus) irritant, sensitizer, asthma
Rosewood, Brazilian irritant, sensitizer
Rosewood, East Indian irritant, sensitizer
Rosewood, Siamese irritant, rash, hives, sensitizer
Rubberwood irritant, sensitizer (latex allergy)
Saffron-Heart irritant, splinters go septic, lung congestion
Sassafras sensitizer, nausea, respiratory, direct toxin, NPC (rare)
Sapele irritant, sneezing
Satinwood, East Indian irritant, headache, diarrhea, sensitizer
Satinwood, West Indian irritant, diarrhea, rash, blisters, sensitizer
Shittim (Acacia seyal) irritant, coughing
Silky Oak, Northern irritant
Silky Oak, Southern irritant, sap may cause blistering of skin, eyelid inflammation
Sissoo irritant
Slash Pine irritant, asthma
Snakewood irritant
Sneezewood irritant, oils within the wood cause violent sneezing
Spruce (Picea genus) irritant, sensitizer
Sucupira irritant
Sumac (Rhus genus) irritant, bark may cause blisters
Sweetgum irritant
Tambootie irritant, diarrhea, blindness, direct toxin
Tatajuba irritant
Teak irritant, sensitizer, rash, nausea, asthma, vision effects, pink eye, HP
Thuya irritant

Turpentine irritant, swelling
Tzalam cold-like symptoms
Utile irritant
Verawood sneezing
Walnut, African irritant, systemic effects, NPC (rare)
Walnut, Black irritant, sensitizer, NPC (rare)
Walnut, English irritant, NPC (rare)
Wamara irritant
Wenge irritant, sensitizer, splinters go septic, nervous system effects
Western Hemlock irritant, NPC (rare)
Western Juniper (Juniperus occidentalis) irritant

White Peroba irritant, sensitizer, asthma
Willow (Salix genus) sensitizer, nausea, NPC (rare)
Yew (Taxus genus) irritant, nausea, direct toxin
Yellowheart irritant

Zebrawood sensitizer
Ziricote cross reactions possible once sensitivity  to other woods have developed

References:

  • Woods Toxic to Man, author unknown
  • Woods, B., Calnan, C.D., Toxic Woods, Br. Journal of Dermatology, 1976
  • ILO Encyclopedia of Occupational Health and Safety 1983
  • Lame, K., McAnn, MEDIUM., AMA Handbook of Poisonous and Injurious Plants, AMA 1985
  • Poisondex, Micromedix Inc. 1990
  • List of woods and toxicity characteristics, Roy Banner, 1989
  • Toxic Woods Information Sheet, (Woodworking sheet #30), Health and Safety Executive, UK
  • Campbell, Bruce, Wood/Dust Toxicity, 2006
  • Ellis, Neil, Health Hazards & Wood, 1998
  • Mitchell, John, and Arthur Rook, Botanical Dermatology, 1979
  • Pentz, Bill, Medical Risks, 2008
  • Timbers & Health, Woodturners Society of Queensland, Inc.
  • Robison, Nick von, Potentially Toxic Woods, Musical Instrument Makers Forum, 1998
  • Chudnoff, Martin, Tropical Timbers of the World, Forest Products Laboratory, 1980
  • Kukachka, Francis, Properties of Imported Tropical Woods, Forest Products Laboratory, 1969
  • Sims, Michael, and Erica Skadsen, Wood Hazards, BMEzine.com LLC, 2006
  • Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 2008
  • Forest Products Laboratory, United States Department of Agriculture

 

What is a Sensitizer?

You’ve probably already heard the term desensitized—usually in reference to violent movies or images—meaning that we start off as naturally being sensitive to something, and upon more and frequent exposure, we become less and less sensitive to its effects.

Well, with some woods that have been classified as being a sensitizer, the opposite is true: the more we are exposed to a wood’s sawdust or other fine particles, the more sensitive we get to its exposure, and the more severe and adverse the reactions become.

If you ever have an allergic reaction to any wood that has been identified as a sensitizer, use extreme caution in handling or using that species (and related species) in future instances. Some have reactions so severe that they simply have had to stop and discontinue using certain wood species altogether. (Cocobolo is notorious in this regard.)

What is HP?

Hypersensitivity pneumonitis (also called extrinsic allergic alveolitis, EAA) is an inflammation of the alveoli within the lung caused by hypersensitivity to inhaled organic dusts. HP on PubMedHealth.

What is NPC?

Nasopharyngeal carcinoma, or sometimes called nasopharyngeal cancer. Basically, it is a cancer of the upper area of the pharynx  or “throat,” where the nasal passages and auditory tubes join the remainder of the upper respiratory tract. NPC on MayoClinic.com.