Is DIY dangerous for your health?

Planning on redecorating the bathroom this weekend? Or finally getting round to fitting those new kitchen units? If so, you may be using Medium Density Fibre Board - commonly known as 'MDF'.

MDF is cheap and versatile, which has made it a material that has been embraced by a huge number of people in the DIY epidemic of the last few years. This hunger was fuelled by programmes such BBC's Changing Rooms which incorporated MDF into most of its designs. Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen and Handy Andy demonstrated how the flexible material could be cut into just about any shape, and curved into unique contemporary furniture and fittings - often challenging the very idea of good taste! So, is MDF the perfect DIY material? Or are there hidden dangers?

There has been considerable publicity about the health hazards of using MDF. There have been reports of how the dust produced when working with MDF can cause health problems such as asthma and even cancer. One trade union stated that 'MDF is the asbestos of the nineties'! Alarming stuff, but are there any grounds for concerns?

Recent assessments of the risks
The Health and Safety Executive has classified MDF as a soft wood and therefore not designated as a carcinogen in the UK. However, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) does not distinguish between hardwoods and softwoods, and it groups 'wood dust' as 'carcinogenic to humans'.

Formaldehyde, which is included in bonding resins used in MDF, is also classified by the IARC as 'possibly carcinogenic to humans'. They argue that, even at low levels, inhalation of formaldehyde can cause irritation to the eyes, nose, throat and mucous membrane. It can also affect the skin, leading to dermatitis, and the respiratory system causing asthma and rhinitis.

MDF in other countries
Reports that MDF is banned in the USA and Australia are speculative. However, there are tighter restrictions on its production and use. In the USA, there are limits on formaldehyde emissions from MDF and home owners in California have to be warned that their new home has been built using MDF which 'contains a chemical known to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive hazards'. Australian workers are warned that formaldehyde is 'a probable carcinogen'.

Is it safe to use MDF?
An HSE spokeswoman stated that 'at present there is no evidence to suggest it (MDF) poses a risk and can be compared to other risks like asbestos'.

However, despite these assessments of MDF and health risks, it is still shrouded in controversy. Therefore, it is advised that anyone using MDF follows these guidelines:

  • Try to use an alternative to MDF

  • Some manufacturers sell low formaldehyde or zero formaldehyde emission boards

If there is no alternative, try to ensure the following:

  • Always use a protective face mask and eye wear when sawing or sanding MDF board

  • Only saw outside or in a well ventilated room

  • Wear gloves to avoid the formaldehyde coming into contact with the skin

Compensation claims
Accident Compensation People (, who specialise in compensation claims for people affected by airborne cancers, say it's too early to speculate about the possibility of compensation claims against manufacturers, or employers who fail to protect their staff from the dangers of MDF.

James Williams, Technical Claims Manager at Accident Compensation People said:

"Nasal cancer has been associated with hard wood dusts for sometime. Many years ago English furniture makers showed an increased incidence of this type of cancer. There does also seem to be a growing concern about soft-wood dust, especially MDF".

The hazards of MDF dust are quite startling and any further developments will have to be monitored closely to see if it is 'the asbestos of the nineties'.


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