Working with Toxic Chemicals on the Job Site
Why are we consantly surrounding ourselves with this harmful stuff?
Reuters news, June 11, 2011: “U.S. adds formaldehyde to list of carcinogens.” Written by Paul Simao.
“………Formaldehyde is a colorless, flammable, strong-smelling chemical widely used to make resins for household items, such as composite wood products, paper product coatings, plastics, synthetic fibers, and textile finishes……….including hair straightening products.”
Styrene, used in Styrofoam and fiberglass may also be cancer causing. “It is a synthetic chemical used in the manufacture of products such as rubber, plastic, insulation, fiberglass, pipes, automobile parts, food containers, and carpet backing. The greatest exposure to styrene in the general population is through cigarette smoking……”
Are these products what gave me an incurable cancer? I have cut acres of plywood and OSB sheathing with a circular saw. Not square feet, but acres of this material spread out over decks, shear walls, and roofs. I have never had my hair straightened, but have put in miles of fiberglass and Styrofoam insulation.
Experience, unfortunately, has taught me some about working with toxic chemicals on the job site. Many of us work with these materials on a daily basis. How do we honestly protect ourselves from harm? I say honestly protect ourselves because most of us “know” that we won’t be harmed when using these materials.
In 1950, I recall watching painters brushing on lacquer to bring out the natural beauty of wood used in built-in-place cabinets. After painting for a time, they would stand up, stagger about, and clutch a base cabinet until their head cleared a bit. Jokes were made about them being “rummy.” Years later, I saw the same thing with plumbers coming up out of a sewer line ditch, staggering from breathing PVC fumes as they joined pipes.
Since then, literally thousands and thousands of new chemicals have been introduced into the materials we use in life and in construction. (A friend working for the EPA tells me between 5000 and 7000 are introduced into our country every year and they have money to test fewer than 300). These chemicals go way beyond the common harmful ones we have been using for years—solvents, adhesives, formaldehyde, PVC, epoxy resins, thinners, caulk, tar, fiberglass—to name a very few. Are we any safer today than we were 60 years ago? Who is out there, really, to protect us rather than ourselves? Recall the recent disasters of the Fema trailers after Katrina hit New Orleans or the drywall from China.
In 1954 brother Joe, Jim, and I started a framing company. Building houses, we used bottom sill plates treated with CCA—chromate-copper-arsenate—to protect the building from subterranean termites.. The 2×4 and 2×6 material delivered in those days was literally dripping with a green slime. The boards we handled were slick, greasy, and hard to hold on to. I went home at the end of many a day with jeans and shirt soaked with chemicals. How could I have known that these poisonous substances were being absorbed into my body? I might as well have been drinking this stuff. Arsenic and copper have been known carcinogens for years. Finally, in 2003, the Environmental Protection Agency banned the use of arsenic in treated wood used in housing—-60 years too late. I sent them a thank you note.
I have always been a healthy person, preferring just to feel good, being careful as to what I put in my body, exercising, meditating, and living simply. I was raised by a health conscious mother who fed us good, nourishing foods. I haven’t drunk more than a dozen soda pops and I have never eaten a Big Mac. That should get me in some kind of record book. So tell me, why then did I come down with a serious case of deadly, incurable T-cell lymphoma in 2002?
I write the following in hope that it might encourage you to be careful when working with toxic materials on your job site: I guess it isn’t news to you that the chemicals used in trying to kill cancer cells are highly toxic and have no way of discriminating between the good and the bad. Everything goes! I was invited to welcome five different chemicals into my body. I want to see them written on paper: Doxorubcin Hydrochloride, Cyclophospharmide, Vincristine, Andriamycin, and Rituxin. One was so toxic that the nurses called it the red devil. It is administered directly into a vein by a nurse using a syringe rather than through an IV tube coming out of an overhead bottle. No chance was taken that it might get out of my blood stream, kill body cells, and eat a hole in my skin. Got to keep that stuff diluted with your blood or it can cause serious trouble! Nine and one-half hours later and I was through with my first treatment.
How can taking such toxic stuff into your body ever be easy? How can you welcome a poison that can make you really sick, destroy your immune system, cause your bones to ache, do permanent damage to your bone marrow, take away your appetite and your ability to hear, make you vomit, give you diarrhea, reduce your physical body to skin and bones, make all your hair including your eyelashes and eyebrows drop out, leave your body drenched from night-sweats, fill your mouth time and again with canker sores, cover your body with rashes, take away the feeling in your hands and feet, turn your voice into a high-pitched squeak, fill your legs and feet with excess fluid, cause serious damage to the liver, kidneys, and heart muscle, and leave you feeling emotionally like the “last rose of summer,” and maybe, just maybe, kill the cancer cells in your body?
I didn’t mind losing my hair. I saved about $120 not having to go to the barber. I did miss my eyelashes. It’s hard to flirt without eyelashes.
So where are we today? Just recently I was in an enclosed workshop where a friend was cutting particle board and a counter top to build cabinets. The air was full of fine dust and he, breathing away without a respirator, didn’t seem concerned.
Last month an old, structurally dangerous, abandoned, two-story commercial building was torn down nearby. I watched from a distance as workers clawed away, opening it up with heavy equipment. As the first wall was ripped open, a cloud of black dusty mold poured out of the building covering workers and all. Besides this mold, the building had to be full of asbestos, lead, and who knows what else. Not one worker had on a respirator or other protective device of any kind. I remind you that these were men with families—wives and children.
So why did they, and I, do what we did? Even now that we are better educated, why do we continue working unprotected with materials that can cause us harm?
We all know that as young people we tend to think that we are invincible. What could ever harm us? “The road will go on forever and the party will never end.” Many carry that type of feeling beyond their teenage years. We used to get 4 ft. x 8 ft. sheets of asbestos board out on the job site used in firewalls in commercial buildings. I have seen workers cut this material with a Skil saw sending particles flying through the air. I asked one carpenter why he didn’t wear a respirator. His reply: “Oh, I only have to cut a few sheets and I will be finished.” I understand this as I have done it myself. I now know that asbestos can cause pulmonary disease and pre-mature death.
Mainly I did what I did out of ignorance. No one ever told me that materials I was working with could be dangerous to my health. I would have been glad to wear a full-length leather apron and gloves to protect myself from getting my clothes soaked with cancer causing arsenic.
We use untested chemicals daily. It is a national problem. My understanding is that in many European countries testing of chemicals has to be done by the producers and not by workers. My EPA friend tells me that in our country the law requires us consumers to prove whether they are harmful or not.
So please, fellow woodworkers, take care. As the saying goes, “The life you save may be your own.”
See: Fine Woodworking article, Chemical Hazards of Wood Working, by Theodore Fink. January 1990