When most people think of wood they don’t think cancer, but studies have shown that wood workers have a higher level of respiratory cancer.

This was brought to my attention when a local lumber supply sent me the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for wood . At first I thought, ” Why do you need MSDS for wood? Wood is perfectly safe.” However the sheet points out that:

Cases of pulmonary fibrosis have been reported in individuals with long term exposure to wood dust. Nasal carcinomas, especially adenocarcinoma, have been documented in workers in the furniture and cabinet-making industries. This excess risk occurs mainly in those exposed to wood dust.

An increase in Hodgkin’s disease has been seen in other industries that are involved in woodworking, especially sawmills. Wood dusts appear to produce a mucostatic effect on the body. A study has suggested that this mucostatic action may be of importance in the development of nasal adenocarcinomas in furniture workers because of the prolonged retention of wood dust in the nasal cavity.

Wood dust is an irritant, although perfectly harmless for most people. However if you irritate the body consistently for long enough then eventually the body will react negatively.

The message here is not that wood is bad, but that any prolonged exposure to an irritant is bad.

This is a key point in green building and the foundation for our strict policing of what substances are allowed in a green home. As green builders we don’t just rely on MSDS to determine if something is toxic. Obviously if the MSDS says it is toxic then it is.

But as this wood safety sheet shows it is often how the material is used that determines the safety of it. And this is what distinguishes green builders from “normal” builders. A green builder has a stricter benchmark for health. And a broader benchmark. The material is looked at from various angles, uses and environments.

A green builder does not just consider the average healthy person when building. They consider how materials will effect pets, old people, sick people, children and even plants.

And they do not just consider the average living environment. What happens if the material gets wet, or if it is scrapped, or in 40 years, or if it is exposed to sun, or to fire? Or a combination of the above?

Is the material toxic when installed and then “it is fine” once it dries?

For example PVC and epoxy are both used commonly in construction and considered safe. The glue used to bind PVC is carcinogenic and so is uncured epoxy. But after installation PVC glue dries and once epoxy cures it becomes inert, thus they are considered safe for the inhabitants.

A green builder isn’t so sure. First of all, have all the carcinogenic fumes REALLY evaporated? And what happens if a child chews on it? Or what happens if the material is subjected to heat?

But most importantly, what about the worker who installs it?

Green building is a holistic process that looks at the entire cycle of building. There is no such thing as a green building if it was built in non-green ways.

Or is the material “fine” when installed and then gets toxic over time, in which case  we’ll deal with it then? This happens a lot.

There are countless sealants, sprays, varnishes, paints and surface protectors in “normal” buildings. They are on almost every surface you touch. They are considered harmless unless ingested and they are too tough to remove for ingestion anyway.

But what happens to that chemical filled floor sealer on the entranceway floor after two thousand footsteps? It begins to wear. And where do those microscopic worn particles go? On your skin, in your lungs, in your eyes…

And what happens when you mix the hundreds of different materials together from all the slowly worn surfaces in your home and throw then into the air as microscopic particles?

You get a chemical soup that slowly wears away at your body like sawdust to a wood worker’s lungs. Mix in a little stress with some genetic predisposition and you’ve got yourself a great recipe for cancer.

Billions of dollars are spent on cancer research without any success. What are these people, idiots? All you have to do is open a normal person’s fridge and see their food surrounded by plastic, sealant, rubber, spray gloss, painted packaging and chemical paper. Check out where they sleep. They are probably surrounded by EMF radiation, fire suppression chemicals in their pillows, anti wrinkle synthetic in their sheets and formaldehyde glue in their mattress.  And we haven’t even gotten to the deathbox of chemicals in their shampoo and conditioner!

But the main point here is that even something as harmless as wood can kill you with cancer. Hell, you could die of chocolate poisoning if you spent a career inhaling chocolate dust.

The point is that we need to become more aware of life. Every religion and philosophy preaches it, every great thinker and visionary said it. Awareness is the key. If you are not aware you will let the saw dust kill you.

There is a great fact that if you put a frog in cold water on the stove then turn the heat on the frog will let itself boil to death. The frog is not able to compute the incremental changes. Obviously it has a lapse of awareness in this area.

With all my respect for frogs I think we can do better. The fact that people are dying from wood dust is simply a microscopic reflection of what we are doing on a global scale as a society. Again, with full respect for wood workers, letting yourself die from wood dust is simply a lack of awareness. Letting ourselves destroy the world like we are is also a lack of awareness.

I don’t think we ever had this awareness consistently. Looking at primitive societies most of them moved camp when the smell from their own garbage got unbearable. Sure they understood their natural surroundings out of survival but they were far from environmentalists.

That solution of moving camp is not an option to us on a global scale. What worked for us before no longer works.  We need to evolve in our awareness. Or we will be boiled alive.

I’d like to think we are resourceful enough to evolve, even if it is out of knee jerk survival instinct. But history shows us that human societies and animals alike don’t always survive.

I for one am rethinking this pot of water I’m sitting in. We all have our own way and for me green building is my ticket out of this increasingly hot pot of water. As a green contractor in Brooklyn I’m swimming as fast as I can to get out of that pot and find the gas knob!

Green roofs, gray water, zero chemicals, salvaged wood, you name it we’re trying it.

Oh, and we wear dust masks when cutting the salvaged wood.

frog7.jpg image by ChatteringTeeth