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

Aburairritant, nausea, giddiness, and vomiting
African Blackwoodirritant, sensitizer
Afrormosiairritant, nervous system effects, asthma, splinters go septic
Afzeliairritant, sneezing
Agba (Gossweilerodendron balsamiferum)irritant
Ailanthusirritant
Albiziairritant, nausea, pink eye, giddiness, nose bleeds
Alder (Alnus genus)irritant
Alligator Juniperirritant
Amboynairritant, asthma
Andirobairritant, sneezing
Angelim vermelhounspecific allergic reactions
Araracangairritant, asthma
Ash (Fraxinus genus)irritant
Ash, alpine (Eucalyptus delegatensis)irritant
Ash, mountainirritant
Australian Blackwoodirritant, sensitizer, asthma
Australian Cashew Nut (Semecarpus australiensis)irritant, skin lesions, nosebleeds
Avodireirritant, nose bleeds, internal bleeding, asthma
Balsairritant
Bambooirritant
Bataiirritant, sneezing
Birch (Betula genus)irritant, sensitizer, nausea
Black Cherrywheezing, giddiness
Black Locustirritant, nausea
Blackbeanirritant
Bloodwoodirritant, excessive thirst, salivation, nausea
Bloodwood, Red (Australian)irritant
Blue Gumirritant
Blue Mahoesneezing
Bocotecross reactions possible once sensitivity to other woods have developed
Bosseirritant, sensitizer, asthma, nausea, headache
Box, Grayirritant, rash
Boxwood, Knysna (Gonioma kamassi)irritant, headache, asthma
Boxwood, Europeanirritant, sensitizer
Brazilwoodirritant, headache, nausea, swelling skin, blisters
Brigalow (Acacia harpophylla)irritant
Brownheartirritant
Bubingairritant, lesions
Buckthornirritant, sap can cause dermatitis
Bulletwoodirritant
Camphorirritant, asthma, headaches, giddiness
Cashew (Anacardium occidentale)irritant, blisters, sensitizer
Catalpairritant
Cedar, Alaskan Yellowirritant
Cedar, Aromatic Redirritant
Cedar, Atlantic Whiteirritant
Cedar, Australian Redirritant, asthma, migraine, giddiness, bronchitis, stomach cramps, NPC (rare)
Cedar, Incenseirritant, rashes
Cedar of Lebanonirritant, asthma, runny nose, respiratory disorders
Cedar, Northern Whiteirritant, asthma
Cedar, Port Orfordirritant, runny nose, asthma, kidney problems (diuresis)
Cedar, Spanishirritant
Cedar, Southern Redirritant
Cedar, Western Redirritant, sensitizer, runny nose, asthma, nervous system effects, NPC (rare)
Chechenirritant, sensitizer
Chestnut, Chinese (Castanea mollissima)irritant
Chestnut, Sweetirritant, sensitizer
Chico Zapoteirritant (nasal)
Chinaberryirritant, headaches
Cocoboloirritant, sensitizer, nausea, asthma, pink eye
Cocuswoodirritant
Coolibahirritant
Copaia (Jacaranda copaia)irritant
Crow’s Ash (Flindersia australis)irritant
Cuban Mahoganyirritant

Cypresssensitizer
Cypress, Australianirritant, asthma, swelling of eyelids, boils, NPC (rare)
Cypress, Gowenirritant
Cypress, Leylandirritant
Cypress, Mediterraneanirritant, rashes, headaches
Cypress, Mexicanirritant
Cypress, Montereyirritant
Dahoma (Piptadeniastrum africanum)irritant, sensitizer
Dead Finish (Acacia tetragonophylla)irritant, splinters go septic
Douglas-firirritant, giddiness, runny nose, splinters go septic, nausea
Ebony (Diospyros genus)irritant, sensitizer, pink eye
Ebony, Brownirritant
Ebony, Macassarirritant, sensitizer
Ekkiirritant
Elm (Ulmus genus)irritant, sensitizer, NPC (rare)
European Beechirritant, sensitizer, NPC (rare)
Eyoum (Dialium dinklagei)irritant
Fir (Abies genus)irritant
Fir, Balsamirritant
Freijoirritant, sensitizer, dryness/thirst
Garapairritant
Goncalo Alvessensitizer
Grasstree (Xanthorrhoea spp.)irritant
Greenheartsensitizer, wheezing, severe throat irritation, splinters go septic, cardiac and intestinal disorders
Guanacasteirritant
Gum, Lemon-Scentedirritant
Gum, Spottedirritant, rashes
Gum, Yellowirritant
Hackberryirritant
Hemlock, Easternirritant
Hemlock, Mountainirritant
Hemlock, Westernirritant, runny nose, NPC (rare)
Hophornbeamirritant
Hornbeam (Carpinus genus)irritant
Idigboirritant
Imbuiairritant
Indian Beech (Pongamia pinnata)irritant
Indian Laurelirritant
Ipeirritant, headache, asthma, vision effects
Irokoirritant, sensitizer, asthma, boils, giddiness, HP
Ironwood, Desertirritant, sneezing, coughing
Jarrahirritant
Jatobairritant
Jelutongirritant
Juniper, Phoenician (Juniperus phoenicea)irritant, headache, nausea
Kahikatea (Dacrycarpus dacrydioides)irritant
Karriirritant
Kataloxirritant
Keruingirritant
Kingwoodirritant, sensitizer, pink eye
Kotoirritant
Laburnum constitutional effects (nausea, vomiting, headaches); direct toxinN/A
Lacewoodirritant
Larch (Larix genus)irritant, hives, lesions
Leadwood (Combretum genus)irritant
Lebbeckirritant
Lignum Vitaeirritant
Limbairritant, hives, splinters go septic, asthma, bleeding of the nose and gums
Machicheirritant
Magnolia (Magnolia genus)asthma, runny nose
Mahogany, Africanirritant, sensitizer, NPC (rare)
Mahogany, Honduranirritant, sensitizer, boils, nausea, giddiness, asthma, HP
Mahogany, Santosirritant
Makoreirritant, nausea, headache, giddiness, nervous system and blood effects
Mangoirritant
Mansoniairritant, sensitizer, nausea, sneezing, headaches, nosebleeds, splinters go septic, asthma, giddiness, cardiac disorders
Maple (Acer genus)irritant, sensitizer, asthma; HP in spalted maple
Maple, Queenslandirritant
Meranti (Shorea genus)irritant
Merbauirritant
Mesquite (Prosopis genus)irritant
Messmateirritant, asthma
Milky Mangrove (Excoecaria agallocha) sap is poisonous, causes irritation to eyes and/or temporary blindness, headache, burning of throat, blistering of skin
Mimosairritant
Moabiirritant (mucous membranes)
Molopangady (Breonia madagascariensis)irritant, sores
Monkeypodirritant
Morairritant
Movinguiirritant
Muhuhu (Brachylaena hutchinsii)irritant

Mulga (Acacia aneura)

irritant, headache, nausea, wood contains a virulent poisonous principle used for spear heads by aboriginals
Muningairritant, asthma, bronchitis
Myrtleirritant, sensitizer
Myrtle, Tasmanianirritant
Narrairritant, asthma
Norway Spruceirritant, asthma
Nyatohirritant
Oak (Quercus genus)irritant, sensitizer, asthma, NPC (rare)
Obecheirritant, sensitizer, runny nose, sneezing, hives, asthma
Okoumeirritant, cough, asthma, pink eye
Oleander (Nerium oleander) irritant, nearly every part of the plant is toxic, cardiac effects
Oliveirritant, sensitizer
Opepeirritant, sensitizer, nervous system effects
Osage Orangeirritant, sap can cause dermatitis
Osage Orange, Argentineirritant, sap can cause dermatitis
Padauk (Pterocarpus genus)irritant, sensitizer, nausea, asthma
Palm (Arecaceae family)irritant, constitutional effects
Parinari (Parinari spp.)irritant
Partridgewoodirritant, hives, coughing
Pau Ferroirritant, sensitizer
Pau Marfim (Balfourodendron riedelianum)irritant
Pau Rosairritant
Pau Santoirritant
Peroba Rosairritant, sensitizer, nausea, asthma
Persimmonirritant
Pheasantwoodcavities in the wood can contain powder that is an irritant, skin discoloration
Pine (Pinus genus)irritant, runny nose, asthma
Pine, Huonirritant
Pistachioirritant
Poison Walnut (Cryptocarya pleurosperma) bark irritating to skin, dust may cause asthma, nausea, giddiness, sap is toxic and corrosive
Poplarirritant, blisters, asthma, bronchitis
Primaverairritant, sensitizer
Purpleheartirritant, sensitizer, nausea
Quebrachoirritant, nausea, NPC (rare)
Quinairritant
Raminirritant, splinters go septic, asthma
Redwoodirritant, sensitizer, asthma, HP, NPC (rare)
Rengassap is strongly irritating, blisters, ulcers, fever, constitutional effects
Rhodesian Teakirritant
Rose Butternut (Blepharocarya involucrigera)irritant, pink eye
Rosewood (Dalbergia genus)irritant, sensitizer, asthma
Rosewood, Brazilianirritant, sensitizer
Rosewood, East Indianirritant, sensitizer
Rosewood, Siameseirritant, rash, hives, sensitizer
Rubberwoodirritant, sensitizer (latex allergy)
Saffron-Heart (Halfordia scleroxyloa)irritant, splinters go septic, lung congestion
Santa Maria (Calophyllum brasiliense)irritant, fainting, insomnia, kidney damage
Sassafrassensitizer, nausea, respiratory, direct toxin, NPC (rare)
Sapeleirritant, sneezing
Satinwood, East Indianirritant, headache, diarrhea, sensitizer
Satinwood, West Indianirritant, diarrhea, rash, blisters, sensitizer
Shittim (Acacia seyal)irritant, coughing
Silky Oak, Northernirritant
Silky Oak, Southernirritant, sap may cause blistering of skin, eyelid inflammation
Simarouba (Simarouba amara)irritant
Sissooirritant
Slash Pineirritant, asthma
Snakewoodirritant
Sneezewoodirritant, oils within the wood cause violent sneezing
Spruce (Picea genus)irritant, sensitizer
Sucupira (Bowdichia nitida)irritant
Sugiunspecified allergic reactions
Sumac (Rhus spp.)irritant, bark may cause blisters
Sweetgumirritant
Tali (Erythrophleum suaveolens)irritant, headache, giddiness, nausea, disorders of bowels and stomach
Tambootieirritant, diarrhea, blindness, direct toxin
Tatajubairritant
Teakirritant, sensitizer, rash, nausea, asthma, vision effects, pink eye, HP
Thuyairritant
Tiama (Entandrophragma angolense)irritant
Turpentineirritant, swelling
Tzalamcold-like symptoms
Utileirritant
Verawoodsneezing
Walnut, Africanirritant, systemic effects, NPC (rare)
Walnut, Blackirritant, sensitizer, NPC (rare)
Walnut, Englishirritant, NPC (rare)
Wamarairritant
Wengeirritant, sensitizer, splinters go septic, nervous system effects, abdominal cramps
Western Hemlockirritant, NPC (rare)
Western Juniper (Juniperus occidentalis)irritant
White Peroba (Paratecoma peroba)irritant, sensitizer, asthma
Willow (Salix spp.)sensitizer, nausea, NPC (rare)
Yew (Taxus spp.) irritant, nausea, headache, cardiac effects, direct toxin
Yellowheartirritant
Zebrawoodsensitizer
Ziricotecross reactions possible once sensitivity to other woods have developed
Zitanirritant, vomiting

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.
  • 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
  • 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.