Description: Wood is a versatile, natural material that has been on Earth for hundreds of millions of years. It has been used for thousands of years as both a building material and a fuel. Wood is the hard, fibrous structural tissue that forms the trunk, stem, branches or roots of trees and shrubs. It is an organic material - i.e., carbon-based and derived from living organisms - that is essentially a strong web of cellulose fibres fixed in a rigid matrix of lignin. There are thousands of types of trees and many available resources on existing trees and tree species, as well as wood and wood properties and uses.
A key factor to keep in mind with wood, is to know whether or not it is treated in some way to give it certain protective properties and thus greater strength, longevity, and resistance to insects, fungus and rot. For example, it may have been coated with a natural varnish, impregnated with toxic chemicals (such as pesticides), or have undergone chemical pressure treatment. If it is treated, you need to know how, so you can assess its safety for your use.
Typical Use: Wood is widely used as a construction material for homes, flooring, furniture, fences - such lumber is often treated in some way. Other uses include utensils, dishes, sports equipment, toys, and as an artistic medium. Untreated wood is a common fuel source, used for cooking and heating.
Untreated Wood: Natural, untreated wood poses little risk of toxicity, because very few woods are inherently toxic. The woods used for our products (e.g., cedar, beechwood, maple) are non-toxic, and any finishes are natural and food-safe (e.g., linseed oil, beeswax).
This Wood Toxicity Table indicates the level of toxicity of most woods, and highlights the four following wood types as inherently toxic (i.e., poisonous) such that they should be avoided or handled with great care: mimosa, oleander, sassafras, and yew.
There are many woods that can cause allergic reactions in sensitive individuals. This Wood Toxicity and Allergen Chart provides an overview of various wood species with their reported effects and properties in terms of toxicity and allergenicity.
If you are working with wood in any way, please keep in mind that all wood dust is hazardous to long-term health. Depending on the wood and any treatment it may have been subjected to it's dust may be acutely toxic and even potentially lethal. As documented in detail by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, exposure to wood dust has long been associated with a variety of adverse health effects, including dermatitis, allergic respiratory effects, mucosal and nonallergic respiratory effects, and cancer. Furthermore, Bill Pentz's Cyclone and Dust Collection Research site provides an extremely comprehensive overview of the peer-reviewed research relating to fine dust hazards.
Thus, it is important to wear a mask and be sure to take dust collection precautions when doing any work with wood that could produce any dust at all.
Wood does have natural anti-bacterial properties, which generally make wood (especially close-grained hardwoods) a much better choice than plastic for cutting boards - even for meat. Pine and oak have been scientifically shown to exhibit better hygenic performance than plastic.
Treated Wood: Any wood that has been treated should be approached with caution, and one should find out exactly how the wood has been treated and with what. There are a number of toxic chemicals that might have been used to preserve the wood, and the methods of wood preservation are many.
For decades, chromated copper arsenate (CCA) was used as the fungicide-insecticide of choice to pressure treat wood for building purposes. (Pressure treatment involves using high pressure to saturate the wood with the chemical preservative.) It is extremely toxic - containing the poisonous carcinogen arsenic - and its use for wood preservation has been highly restricted. Other less toxic, arsenic-free, copper-based (copper being the primary fungicide) preservatives have taken precedence, such as alkaline copper quaternary (ACQ) and copper azole (CA).
But keep in mind that most of the structures built with CCA-treated wood over the years have not been dismantled, so one should take precautions to avoid direct contact with any pressure-treated wood. It is difficult to distinguish the old CCA-treated wood from the new and safer ACQ- or CA-treated woods as all give the wood a greenish colour.
In general, only untreated wood should be used for building applications where people and animals will come into contact with the finished product (e.g., playground structures, decks, lawn furniture). Similarly, treated wood should not be used for gardening structures as the fungicides-pesticides and other chemicals in the wood can leach out and contaminate the soil.
Untreated Wood: Municipal recycling programs do not generally accept wood. But wood that is untreated and unpainted can be recycled into furniture, pallets, wood chip, mulch, animal bedding and new particleboard.
Treated Wood: Generally, chemically treated wood cannot be recycled. In most municipalities, the only way to dispose of it is through the regular garbage stream into a landfill as most hazardous waste sites do not accept treated wood.
Treated wood should NEVER be burned, except in a controlled industrial incinerator that captures all pollution. The chemical particulate matter and toxic gases released during burning can create extremely toxic and dangerous smoke and ashes. The burning concentrates and releases the chemicals in the smoke and ash.
Our Suggestion: SAFE. Unless it is treated with toxic chemical preservatives. If possible, AVOID chemically treated wood.
IMPORTANT NOTES: While we strive to provide as accurate and balanced information as possible on our website, Life Without Plastic cannot guarantee its accuracy or completeness because there is always more research to do, and more up-to-date research studies emerging -- and this is especially the case regarding research on the health and environmental effects of plastics. As indicated in our Terms & Conditions, none of the information presented on this website is intended to be professional advice or to constitute a professional service to the individual reader. All matters regarding health require medical supervision, and the information presented on this website is not intended as a substitute for consulting with your physician.
Throughout our website, some technical terminology is used. In the interest of making the articles accessible and not too long, dry, or complex, technical terms may be hyper-linked to more detailed explanations and relevant reference material provided in Wikipedia. Please keep in mind that Wikipedia articles are written collaboratively by volunteers from all over the world and thus may contain inaccuracies. Life Without Plastic makes no guarantee of the validity of the information presented in Wikipedia articles to which we provide links. We suggest you read the Wikipedia General Disclaimer before relying on any information presented in a Wikipedia article.