The following is a reprint (with permission) of a letter to the editor of the
Workshop News magazine published in the August 2004 edition. The author of the
letter, Kerry Pierce, is a well know author of several woodworking related
books – The Wood Stash Project Book, Authentic Shaker Furniture, Making
Shaker Woodenware, The Art of Chair-Making, the Custom Furniture Sourcebook,
Practical Projects from Fine Woods, The Used Lumber Project Book, The
Woodworker’s Visual Guide to Pricing Your Work, Small-Production Woodworking
for the Home Shop, and Making Elegant Gifts from Wood.
Please read and take to heart,
Cancer, mineral spirits
In October of 2003, I was diagnosed with Stage 4, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma
and given a 20-percent chance of survival. I was only 53 and in what I
thought was reasonably good health. Twenty years earlier, I'd given up
smoking, and ever since, I'd made a reasonable effort to live a healthy
lifestyle, one that included daily exercise and a nutritious diet.
Nevertheless, there I was last October, along with my wife and daughter, in
the office of the man who would later become my Primary oncologist, receiving
a diagnosis that was uncomfortably close to a death sentence.
Several times during the four months of chemotherapy that followed, I asked
my oncologist about the specific kinds of things in my life which might have
contributed to my cancer. At first, he was reluctant to discuss this -- he
wanted me focused only on my recovery, not on regrets -- but I persisted,
and eventually he explained that a number of studies have linked lymphoma and
the solvents used by furniture makers -- a linkage I later confirmed with
a little research.
In my case, solvent use means mineral spirits, since it is the only one I
use regularly in my shop.
Years ago, when I was still applying spray finishes, I was scrupulous about
wearing a respirator whenever I worked with mineral spirits, but in the late
'80s, when I made the switch from sprayed finishes to brush-on, wipe-off
finishes, I dropped the respirator from my finishing regimen because I thought
that the absence of airborne droplets eliminated the risk. Plus, I enjoy the
finishing process, and wearing a respirator diminishes the pleasure I take
in this activity. I also thought that a product like mineral spirits -- which
is in such widespread use -- even among those who are not woodworking
professionals or hobbyists, couldn't be really dangerous, despite the
warnings on the cans.
I was foolish.
Breathing the unfiltered, fumes of mineral spirits no doubt contributed to
my lymphoma, but I believe the most dangerous element in my finishing regimen
was my failure to wear gloves. This meant that at the conclusion of every
finishing session -- often a daily event in my shop -- I would wash finish
from my hands with mineral spirits, thereby absorbing the toxins through my
The fault was my own. There were warnings on every can of mineral spirits I
ever purchased, and I ignored them.
If you're working with solvents --and I would imagine this applies to almost
everyone reading this magazine -- please heed the warnings on the cans.
Believe me: The dangers are very real.
Editor's note: Manufacturers warn that the use of mineral spirits will
produce exposure to benzene, which is listed by the National Institute of Occupational
Safety and Health as a potential occupational carcinogen. NIOSH recommends the
use of a respirator and skin protection when working with mineral spirits.
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