Is working with MDF going to kill me?

Woodworking Asked on March 12, 2021

MDF is pretty cool stuff. Been around for a fair amount of time now. Stuff is used lots now and days. Dimensionally stable and cost effective for a great deal of projects. Problem is that MDF is made with formaldehyde right? and that the chemical has been classified as a known carcinogen.

Looking up an article on MDF safety I ran into The deadly secret of DIY’s dream material which contains such information like:

At this month’s TUC conference Roy Lockett, deputy general secretary of Bectu, said: ‘MDF is the asbestos of the Nineties. It is carcinogenic. It causes lesions. It damages the eyes, the skin, the lungs and the heart. It is vile and pernicious.’

Then I watch this video where buddy is making a couple of hundred mdf boxes. There was a (exaggeration alert) tonne of MDF boxes made. You see him cutting all these boxes and I have to wonder what that is going to be doing to his health.

Lots o' boxes

Is working MDF bad for your health? Why is it so widely used if there are health concerns? Should I avoid its use?

One Answer

Is working MDF bad for your health?

Yes but only if you are ignorant of your tools and materials.

It certainly can be. However the answer of "Yes" is misleading as the concerns surrounding MDF are more than just the potential presence of hazards such as the release formaldehyde. Working MDF creates dust particles much like any other wood. It is true though that some formaldehyde will be located on those particles and that has the potential to enter the body.

Articles and blogs that discuss the harms of formaldehyde usually miss some key points. Namely that it is a naturally occurring organic compound that is found in the air, plants, animals and our own bodies.

Formaldehyde is normally present at low levels, usually less than 0.03 ppm,(parts per million) in both outdoor and indoor air.

From What is formaldehyde and where does it come from?

Large point to make about MDF is that the common binding resin urea-formaldehyde, for which the concern derives from, is not the sole binding agent used in the manufacture of MDF today. Many suppliers offer formaldehyde free or no added-formaldehyde options.

Another thing that some people forget is that the compound urea-formaldehyde has also been used in the creation of plywoods and other sheet goods. Therefore its use in the engineered wood market is not new.

Should I avoid its use?

There are certain safety precautions that need to be taken regardless of the work you are doing. I like this quote from a prop makers blog that captures this well:

Like any other substance or material used in [the workshop], the safety of using it is dependent on knowing the risks and possible hazards and taking the appropriate precautions.

In that video that was linked I don't think I see a mask at all in use. Sawdust is a known carcinogen from MDF or otherwise. As discussed in What kind of wood dust is toxic/dangerous and requires usage of dust mask? the answer is you should always be wearing the appropriate dust mask.

Also need to be aware that reaction to different materials can be individual. Some people are just naturally sensitive to dust and particles. That does not mean MDF is a bad material on that justification alone.

Is working with MDF going to kill me?

Probably not. As long as you are aware of the risk associated with working on it. That last sentence should ring a general warning that you should always be aware of the risk to your personal safety when working with your tools and materials.

Correct answer by Matt on March 12, 2021

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