What to do about softwood? A review of respiratory effects and recommendations regarding exposure limits

Am J Ind Med. 1997 Apr;31(4):385-98. doi: 10.1002/(sici)1097-0274(199704)31:4<385::aid-ajim3>3.0.co;2-v.


Wood dust has been classified as a human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer with a footnote that the evaluation was based on a marked excess of sino-nasal cancer among workers exposed primarily to hardwood dusts. Because the epidemiologic data on the carcinogenic effects of softwoods are weaker than for hardwoods, standard setting for softwood dust presents a greater dilemma. Unfortunately, the studies of wood dust and cancer do not have the quantitative exposure data necessary for standard setting for either hardwoods or softwoods. Asthma, non-asthmatic airflow obstruction, and both upper and lower respiratory symptoms have been associated with exposure to both 'allergenic' and 'non-allergenic' softwood dusts, and an association with increasing intensity of exposure has been observed in multiple studies. The available evidence seems to indicate that to prevent these nonmalignant effects, the level of exposure to all softwood dust should be at least as low 2 mg/m3. A standard of 1 mg/m3 may be more appropriate to provide a safety margin to protect more sensitive workers. It may be that some of the health effects observed are due to the natural components of wood, such as resin acids or monoterpenes, or to molds.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Air Pollutants, Occupational / adverse effects*
  • Air Pollutants, Occupational / standards*
  • Asthma / epidemiology
  • Asthma / etiology
  • Canada / epidemiology
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Dust
  • Environmental Monitoring / methods*
  • Environmental Monitoring / standards
  • Epidemiological Monitoring
  • Humans
  • Incidence
  • Lung Diseases, Obstructive / epidemiology
  • Lung Diseases, Obstructive / etiology
  • Maximum Allowable Concentration
  • Occupational Diseases / epidemiology
  • Occupational Diseases / etiology*
  • Occupational Health
  • Particle Size
  • Respiratory Tract Diseases / epidemiology
  • Respiratory Tract Diseases / etiology*
  • Respiratory Tract Neoplasms / epidemiology
  • Respiratory Tract Neoplasms / etiology
  • Risk Factors
  • Wood*


  • Air Pollutants, Occupational
  • Dust