Sawdust or wood dust is a by-product of cutting, grinding, drilling, sanding, or otherwise pulverizing wood or any other material with a saw or other tool; it is composed of fine particles of wood. It is also the byproduct of certain animals, birds and insects which live in wood, such as the woodpecker and carpenter ant. It can present a hazard in manufacturing industries, especially in terms of its flammability. Sawdust is the main component of particleboard.
A major use of sawdust is for particleboard; coarse sawdust may be used for wood pulp. Sawdust has a variety of other practical uses, including serving as a mulch, as an alternative to clay cat litter, or as a fuel. Until the advent of refrigeration, it was often used in icehouses to keep ice frozen during the summer. It has been used in artistic displays, and as scatter in miniature railroad and other models. It is also sometimes used to soak up liquid spills, allowing the spill to be easily collected or swept aside. As such, it was formerly common on barroom floors. It is used to make Cutler's resin. Mixed with water and frozen, it forms pykrete, a slow-melting, much stronger form of ice.
Sawdust is used in the manufacture of charcoal briquettes. The claim for invention of the first commercial charcoal briquettes goes to Henry Ford who created them from the wood scraps and sawdust produced by his automobile factory.
Use in food
Cellulose, fibre starch that is indigestible to humans, and a filler in some low calorie foods, can be and is made from sawdust, as well as from other plant sources. While there is no documentation for the persistent rumor, based upon Upton Sinclair's novel The Jungle, that sawdust was used as a filler in sausage, cellulose derived from sawdust was and is used for sausage casings. Sawdust-derived cellulose has also been used as a filler in bread.
Auschwitz concentration camp survivor, Dr. Miklós Nyiszli, reports in Auschwitz: A Doctor's Eyewitness Account that the subaltern medical staff, who served Dr. Josef Mengele, subsisted on "bread made from wild chestnuts sprinkled with sawdust."
Health and safety hazards
Airborne sawdust and sawdust accumulations present a number of health and safety hazards. Wood dust becomes a potential health problem when, for example, the wood particles, from processes such as sanding, become airborne and are inhaled. Wood dust is a known human carcinogen. Certain woods and their dust contain toxins that can produce severe allergic reactions.
Water-borne bacteria digest organic material in leachate, but use up much of the available oxygen. This high "biological oxygen demand" can suffocate fish and other organisms. There is an equally detrimental effect on beneficial bacteria, so it is not at all advisable to use sawdust within home aquariums, as was once done by hobbyists seeking to save some expense on activated charcoal.
People can be exposed to wood dust in the workplace by breathing it in, skin contact, or eye contact. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has set the legal limit (permissible exposure limit) for wood dust exposure in the workplace as 15 mg/m3 total exposure and 5 mg/m3 respiratory exposure over an 8-hour workday. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has set a recommended exposure limit (REL) of 1 mg/m3 over an 8-hour workday.
Explosions and fire
Sawdust is flammable and accumulations provide a ready source of fuel. Airborne sawdust can be ignited by sparks or even heat accumulation and result in explosions.
At sawmills, unless reprocessed into particleboard, burned in a sawdust burner or used to make heat for other milling operations, sawdust may collect in piles and add harmful leachates into local water systems, creating an environmental hazard. This has placed small sawyers and environmental agencies in a deadlock.
Questions about the science behind the determination of sawdust being an environmental hazard remain for sawmill operators (though this is mainly with finer particles), who compare wood residuals to dead trees in a forest. Technical advisors have reviewed some of the environmental studies, but say most lack standardized methodology or evidence of a direct impact on wildlife. They don’t take into account large drainage areas, so the amount of material that is getting into the water from the site in relation to the total drainage area is minuscule.
Other scientists have a different view, saying the "dilution is the solution to pollution" argument is no longer accepted in environmental science. The decomposition of a tree in a forest is similar to the impact of sawdust, but the difference is of scale. Sawmills may be storing thousands of cubic metres of wood residues in one place, so the issue becomes one of concentration.
But of larger concern are substances such as lignins and fatty acids that protect trees from predators while they are alive, but can leach into water and poison wildlife. Those types of things remain in the tree and, as the tree decays, they slowly are broken down. But when sawyers are processing a large volume of wood and large concentrations of these materials permeate into the runoff, the toxicity they cause is harmful to a broad range of organisms.
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- Felman, David (2005) "Why Did Bars Used to Put Sawdust on the Floor? Why Don't They Anymore?" Why Do Elephant's Jump? HarperCollins, New York, page 118, ISBN 978-0-06-053914-6, quoting Christopher Halleron, bartender and beer columnist.
- Green, Harvey (2006) Wood: Craft, Culture, History Penguin Books, New York, page 403, ISBN 978-1-1012-0185-5
- Nassauer, Sarah (4 May 2011). "Why Wood Pulp Makes Ice Cream Creamier". The Wall Street Journal.
- Packing houses formerly purchased large quantities of sawdust for the cutting room floors, and still purchase sawdust for use as a fuel and flavoring in the smoking process.
- Savic, I. V. (1985). "Small-scale sausage production: Sausage Casings". Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).
- "Bread Labels on Wood Fiber Draw Attack". Los Angeles Times. 9 October 1985. Archived from the original on 16 September 2010.
- Nyiszli, Miklos (2011). "3". Auschwitz: A Doctor's Eyewitness Account. New York: Arcade Publishing. p. 34.
- "Wood Dust Exposure". State Compensation Insurance Fund. Retrieved April 30, 2012.
- "Report on Carcinogens, Twelfth Edition, Wood Dust" (PDF). Retrieved July 12, 2014.
- "FINAL Report on Carcinogens Background Document for Wood Dust" (PDF). Retrieved July 12, 2014.
- Meier, Eric. "Wood Allergies and Toxicity". The Wood Database.
- "CDC - NIOSH Pocket Guide to Chemical Hazards - Wood dust". www.cdc.gov. Retrieved 2015-11-28.
- Canadian Geographic Online