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What are the Health Risks of MDF?

A man working with MDF, which is commonly made with formaldehyde glue.
Wearing protective gear can minimize exposure to wood dust thereby reducing the health risk of MDF.
A face mask and eye protection should be worn when working with MDF.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 04 September 2014
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Medium density fiberboard (MDF) is a manufactured wood product used in a variety of industries. The manufacturing process includes some chemicals that may be hazardous to humans, leading to concerns about the health risks of MDF. There are two primary concerns: exposure to the chemicals used to make it and wood dust. By being aware of the potential risks, people can protect themselves when they work with it.

To make MDF, a company shreds wood, softens it, and turns it into a fine powder. The powder is combined with resins and other bonding agents and compacted into solid boards. A number of different woods can be used to make MDF, and the material is also sometimes treated to be fire, water, or stain resistant. Many lumberyards sell varying types and widths for an assortment of uses.

Toxic chemicals are one of the major health risks of MDF. The chemical of most concern is formaldehyde, which can aggravate asthma and other lung conditions, irritate mucous membranes, and cause contact dermatitis. Studies on this chemical also suggest that it is a likely carcinogen, and it should be generally avoided. During the manufacturing process, personnel should protect themselves with respirators and adequate clothing. When cutting or working with MDF, nose, mouth, and eye protection should be worn. Finished products may also offgas, raising concerns about its use in the home. Fiberboard should never be burned, except in adequately ventilated facilities.

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The second issue with MDF is wood dust, which is especially problematic for the airway, and it may be a possible carcinogen as well. Protective gear will reduce this health risk greatly, and finished products rarely pose a dust risk, since they should be properly sealed. MDF should always be cut and processed in well ventilated locations to reduce the risk of inhaling the dust.

The health risks of MDF should certainly be taken into consideration when the material is used, but they should not rule out its use altogether. Especially for outdoor use, MDF can be versatile, sturdy, and perfectly safe. The risks due to potential off gassing should be a source of potential concern, however, especially to parents, since children are very sensitive to respiratory irritants. Employers also have a responsibility to ensure that their employees are protected in the work equipment.

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anon965181
Post 11

I am a finish carpenter in Minnesota. All of the builders we work for have switched to mdf trim. Most of the cabinets I install are made of mdf panels. The dust is thick as we are usually in a space where we have to rely on the wind and windows for ventilation.

Since we started working primarily with mdf, I have noticed my lung capacity has changed. My nostrils are always plugged and frequently bleeding, although not severely. I have trouble sleeping, catching a deep breath. I never considered mdf could be at fault until reading some of the comments here. I hope this is not the cause, as I need to keep working in this field for another decade or so. Damn.

anon942889
Post 10

I live in the US and have cut mdf for the past 12 years professionally for veneer based fixtures, and later on CNC high dust volume routers. I remember when I was first apprenticing MDF was the worst thing I had ever worked with. Within my first year, California suppliers were voluntarily switching to urea formaldehyde free MDF, all problems disappeared.

For the last six years, I have cut approximately 40 sheets of mdf per month, and the vacuum system at my work is sub par for my machine (15 hp range 12 inch main with 4 inch for the cnc. I am guilty of not wearing a dust mask ( valved 3m high dust capable foam sealed masks) too often. Blowing off the parts that contain perhaps a 36 cubic inches of dust that goes airborne is what scares me, especially because of the silica in wood dust issue raised here.

Luckily, I don't suffer from any symptoms that I could correlate to this yet. I will be more careful about limiting my exposure after this message board read. Thank you all for the info.

anon351302
Post 9

Wood dust per se is a group 1 carcinogen, on the same level as asbestos, also including that from wood composite boards such as MDF/chipboard/particleboard OSB, etc.

In the UK and elsewhere too, wood composites are made from old waste wood recycled from C&D waste (construction and demolition waste from the demolition of old buildings) and not from what they call 'virgin' wood. Even 'virgin' wood is not free from contaminants, as is implied, like they would have you believe, as it's often sprayed with pesticides, fungicides, preservatives and so on even before or shortly after felling.

The use of old waste wood means that all kinds of previously banned building substances and toxic/carcinogenic 'nasties' are finding their way back into the chain via this route such as asbestos, c/silica, lead arsenic, CCA, preservatives, pesticides, fire retardants and many more too – all of which cause ill health problems when inhaled. This is then emitted in the fine dust that is produced from working with the board, especially for wood machinists whose machinery produce copious amounts of very fine dust.

Most wood workers are still not provided with the correct PPE and although wood dust per se is a classified carcinogen on the same level as asbestos, the wearing of masks is still not compulsory and those flimsy DIY masks will not protect anyone.

These boards already contain many chemicals and substances harmful to health. Besides, the use of old waste wood and natural wood contains crystalline silica, another group1 carcinogen. This is often added as filler, glues, binders, resins and so on and also to outer protective coatings to make them scratch resistant and so more horrors added to the wood dust mix. Even water based pesticides (solvent ones are said to cause harm, but they all do) to make up for the lack of solvents add to them crystalline silica because it's known to scratch the hard cuticle like outer shell, the exo-skeleton of the pest, and so this speeds up the ingestion of the poison. If it does this to pests, then what do they think it does the lungs of woodworkers when they inhale it as a breathable dust?

Wood contains c/silica naturally in varying amounts depending on the type of wood, some more than others. The wood industry has had a long standing problem with the premature blunting of the metal industrial strength diamond and tungsten carbide tipped saw blades, which is proven to be caused by the high c/silica content of the wood/board. If it blunts these heavy duty immensely strong saw blades what they think it is doing to the lungs of those inhaling the dust from it? C/silica is also a group 1 carcinogen and when they banned asbestos they more than likely replaced it with c/silica because many of its properties are so like asbestos. It is well documented that freshly fractured c/silica is more toxic than aged c/silica, because it's sharper. It scratches the vulnerable tissues of the lung and the finer particles can pass through the lungs and into the blood stream meaning that they can cause harm to any part of the body not just the nose and lungs.

Wood dust and silica have both been associated with causing many different types of cancers, respiratory diseases, skin diseases, autoimmune diseases and so on. All of these contaminants will be taken home on work clothes, hair and skin to expose loved ones (children are more vulnerable to these exposures as they're immune systems are still forming for some years) and to contaminate homes. Partners/wives should never wash work clothes, as they too could become ill.

I've researched this subject for some years now because wood dust made me and my husband both ill with the same rare disease and trust me, chronic illness and disability devastates your life forever and can shorten it considerably.

anon260176
Post 8

Everything said above is true. The last four years of my life have been a nightmare. I purchased a CNC router for my workshop, and although it was not intended for this purpose, I began experimenting with making MDF radiator cabinets, among other things. After about one year of working with it, I developed an allergy to anything MDF related. My symptoms include going to bed really tired, and sleeping for maybe two hours, then waking with my heart pumping hard, and heavy sweating. I get up with my brain going at a million miles per hour, then can't go back to bed, and come work time, I'm totally done in. I also have a really lethargic and generally unwell feeling all day. It also seems to affect my whole system, with bowel movements becoming weirdly different, and really bad wheezing asthma-like symptoms. It all eases off after a couple of days of exposure, and I return to normal after one week.

Now I cannot even go into the same workshop and breathe for even one second, or it happens all over again. I've been to the doctor, and on to the consultant, who on my initial consultation, stated “stop working with it “. At the time I felt he was being very harsh, and should be trying to find a solution for me because it is my livelihood. After all, if something in a hospital troubled him, and his doctor said the same, well, you know what I mean.

After loads of tests and inhalers, etc., he has now said there is nothing he can do. I am suffering from extreme chemical sensitivity. But you know what? His first advice was the best: stay away from the stuff. I moved on to a different career, but still have to be very careful.

Anyway, I have now rented out these premises, and never go inside them. If I am in a home store, and near where the MDF is stored, I'm off again. So everyone out there beware of this stuff. The older nurse treating me said that in another 10 years or so, MDF related problems are going to be huge, as she is now seeing more and more people coming in with problems relating to working with it.

anon245581
Post 7

I worked as a design consultant for a large company. They had a refit outside my open door office and the area was about 400 square meters and lots of MDF boards were used to make partitions.

When I returned to work after a two week holiday (I took holidays because I was informed that a lot of noise and disruption would occur), the whole area was covered in M.D.F. dust. I was given a dustpan and brush and a henry hoover and asked to clean it up. It took me five days to clear the worst.

Shortly after starting the clean up, I developed flu- like symptoms, and took medication to combat this. The cleaning was never-ending because dust kept falling from the rafters and after six weeks of exposure I became so ill I had to go to the doctor. He put me on a nebuliser and sent me for lots of tests.

I have been diagnosed with asthma, an inactive thyroid gland and a nasty facial rash. I used to be an active person who jogged and cycled, but those days are gone. I now know the dangers of mdf dust, although a link to my illness and mdf dust is still to be proven.

I was always fit and had an excellent health record. My advice is stay away from the dust. After all, we all thought asbestos was safe not so long ago.

anon241104
Post 6

anon113853, contact OSHA anonymously and describe your environment. My guess is that the situation will be rectified by management. It doesn't sound good at all. Take care of yourself, permanent disabilities are not fun to live with. Good luck.

anon234989
Post 5

Thanks for the information on MDF health risks during the making of it, and when cutting.

I have ordered kitchen cabinets made of MDF and I'm very concerned if it's safe. Would you know?

anon146305
Post 2

Our local library is having work done and is still open to the public. The work involves using MDF and when you enter, you can see all the dust on shelves and in the air. Is this not good for public and staff alike?

anon113853
Post 1

I work in a factory where we have a machine insulated with MDF. This machine heats up to temperatures over 100 degrees and emits a very nasty smell. Since this machine has been installed I have suffered several severe chest infections and am of the opinion that this machine is to blame.

Does anyone know of any research that has been done on the effects of this material being heated to such levels?

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