Is Yew wood toxic…

Is Yew wood toxic? This question has been around for a long, long time. Pliny is, I believe, the first to have recounted the story that people have died from consuming fluids (in this case, wine) from Yew wood vessels. Since then there have been stories, and some research, but nothing definitive (that I can find) on the issue of the wood itself.

The leaves, and seed, are toxic, and this much is documented in some depth. Sheep and cattle have died as a result of eating these. Humans also, or so it is reported, have become either very ill, or else sadly passed away due to the ingestion of the leaves and seeds…and not all of them knowingly! Why you wish to eat Yew leaves is an entirely different matter!

The toxin which causes the problem is TAXINE, and it is present in the wood, but research online reveals that whilst present in the wood, can be over varying levels depending on a number of factors such as region the tree grows in, soil composition, and the season the tree is felled. But nowhere that I can find has information directly related to using Yew for domestic ware.

Yew is used widely by turners, and heaven knows how many Yew vessels are used for fruit, or eating and drinking from. I know of a fair number, and up until today have been one such.

Some of you may remember the oak coffee mug I turned for the workshop…

oak mug

Well I still use it, and love the thermal qualities of the wood, and the feel of it. I decided to turn a Yew version some months ago, and have used it ever since, with, I should add, no observable problems to my health or well being.

yew mug

And then a woodturning club sent me a newsletter with a note about Yew…they had asked a University Professor if Yew was safe as a utility wood…the answer was “NO!” (paraphrased somewhat!). And then a greenwood worker posed the same question on the Bodgers forum and the opinions came in. The consensus seems to be that it is not, but these opinions seem to be based on anecdotal information and half understood science. So what are the answers to the many questions posed? Here are a few questions that might arise out of the debate:

Does Yew wood contain enough TAXINE to be a problem?

Does the toxin remain in the wood forever?

 Does it dissipate with time?

Is it soluble in fluids which the wood comes into contact with?

If so, can it be “washed out”?

Can we test for it with any degree of ease?

Does the toxin pass to dry foodstuffs on contact with the wood?

After searching for information I contacted the author of a book on toxicology, and currently am awaiting a reply. My thoughts are that even if I get a response it is likely to be non-committal, and err (naturally) on the side of “best not to just in case”.

And what of the dust from Yew wood? The dust itself is a known problem, although reports suggest that some are more prone to adverse reaction than others, but this is nothing new. But what of the taxine within the dust? Is this a separate problem. Can the toxins in the wood dust pass through the aveoli into the blood stream? Can the toxins “build up” over time to cause a problem many months or years later?

It’s an interesting and potentially dangerous series of questions this whole issue raises, and one I’m keen to work towards answering. So, if you’re a toxicologist reading this (which is a long shot I know!) and have any answers I’d be more than pleased to hear from you.

And as a final aside…

taking all this into account, and discounting the one known case of a very well known UK turner who has eaten from a Yew plate every day for decades, I thought it was perhaps sensible to stop using the Yew mug for now, and picked up the oak mug…but then it occurred tome that oak has another very well know chemical…tannin…so what of tannin? Is it toxic?

You bet!

There is more written about the toxicity of oak than of Yew from what I can glean. So where does that leave us?

Utility friendly sycamore and beech I think. Tested over many hundreds of years, and known to be safe for food and beverage use.

Good old native white woods.

Turn safely folks.

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27 thoughts on “Is Yew wood toxic…

  1. I have been turning Yew for the past few months and the toxin question is always in the back of my mind and to a degree, distracting me… I would be delighted to finally get a definitive answer to this age old question.. Please keep the quest going…

  2. Hello Tony,

    my initial email to a specialist toxicologist resulted in a “no answer”. I have since sent out a dozen or so emails to various specialsits and only received one confirmation, and no information. But I’ll keep at it and post when I get news to pass on.

    Andy

  3. Interesting issues. As far as tannin goes, anyone who has ever had a glass of wine had drank tannin. That’s one reason for using oak for making wine barrels. Tannin is even added (in powder form) to wine to adjust its flavor profile.

    As a home wine maker, I have a jar of tannic acid (tannin) in my cellar.

    Is there a difference between tannin as found in wood and tannic acid? I have no idea, myself.

    Chris

  4. Hello Chris,

    tannin is tannin no matter where it comes from. The fact that tannin is a known toxin is confusing for many people, but doesn’t alter the fact. Many commonly ingested substances can be toxins…in the right quantity. Vitamins, proteins, minerals of all sorts, in fact many, many things are toxic to some extent.

    We know taxine (from Yew) is toxic but as yet I have no authoratative answer to the “how much” question, and how this relates to a given piece of wood and its taxine content.

    My own belief…and this is NOT authoratative…is that in a coffee mug made of Yew, for example, there is not nearly enough taxine to prove a health issue.

    Your question has spurred me on again, so I’ll take a different tack now and try another avenue of research. Answers, if any, will be posted later…

    many thanks

  5. Pingback: Yew - Woo-hoo!... Part 2 - Page 3 - Woodcarving Illustrated Message Board

  6. i ve been turning for a few years, i like to work with yew. the only time i find have an issue with the wood is when im sanding, i HAVE TO wear a dust mask and have the dust collecter going!most woods i can use one or the other and im fine.it seems not to make a big deal when its not being worked but as far as long term effects i dont know.

  7. recently i have been making bows from yew and decided to make a tobacco pipe due to it being great wood to work from. i havnt smoked out of it yet but would it be safe to smoke from? if i were to laminate it, would it be still safe from toxins?

  8. I couldn’t possibly answer that question, Nick. It seems that there are no toxicologists out there who are willing, or perhaps able, to give a catagoric answer to the questions I posed, so I can only tell you that the wood is listed as toxic, considered toxic, and must therefore be treated as toxic.
    As for laminating any wood for a pipe, I would imagine that you would need to confirm that the glue used is not toxic when exposed to heat, and this assumes that the laminated woods are safe in the first instance.

  9. I have just tried to Google the same question posed by cobweb above and wondered if any answer has yet been found.

    I have been made the most beautiful wine goblet by my uncle in Yew and it’s just too stunning to be left on a shelf.

    Is there anything I could maybe coat the inside with as a barrier to my insides given that it’ll only be used for cold liquids?

  10. Hello Woodlandwench,

    there is still no definitive answer, so common sense dictates caution. There are proprietry wood sealers which can be used to provide a liquid barrier on wood. Polyurethane-type surface treatments being the most commonly used. Your woodwork supplies store should hold one. Good luck.

    Andy

  11. In response to cobweb’s question about smoking a pipe made from yew, surely the most obvious issue is that smoking is known to be ‘harmful’, to put it nicely.

    BTW, Wikipedia says that the wood is not toxic, and we all know how reliable a source of information Wiki is!!

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taxus_baccata

    This website says it is toxic, however.

    http://www.whitedragon.org.uk/articles/yew.htm

    In summary, I would say, if in doubt, why take the risk?

  12. I have recently turned about 25 pens from yew. About 2 weeks ago my face was covered in a rash and was very dry, almost felt like sunburn. Since this happened I have been searching for information regarding yew, and wood dust generally…. It would seem that I have been a silly man with my lack of dust extraction etc. I am now considering a Trend airshield pro, and have installed basic extraction. I am supposing that other woods are just as nasty as yew, but I can safely say there is something in yew which I don’t agree with.

  13. Hello Paul,

    I’m sorry to hear of your experience, but it is not uncommon. Some people have a natural sensitivity to a number of woods, Yew being one such. Sensitivity can also develop over time after prolonged exposure to both wood and its dust, so an airshield is a good ideas as you have already exhibited symptoms of sensitivity. Good luck and safe turning.
    Andy

  14. Very interesting as right now I’m turning a block of Yew, with a face mask on and goggles (which quickly gill with condensation) – and I have been told its the dust from Yew – but I too need facts!
    How ever I have been told to steer clear of Laburnum.

  15. I’ve been working with Yew Wood for 9 years extensively and have developed an allergy to it. If there is research being conducted I would be interested in the information and could also provide personal experience. So far I’ve noticed itchy red eyes and sensitivity on the soles of my feet from being bare foot in the shop.

  16. Most parts of the tree are toxic, except the bright red aril surrounding the seed, enabling ingestion and dispersal by birds. The major toxin is the alkaloid taxane. The foliage remains toxic even when wilted or dried. Horses have the lowest tolerance, with a lethal dose of 200–400 mg/kg body weight, but cattle, pigs, and other livestock are only slightly less vulnerable.[10] Symptoms include staggering gait, muscle tremors, convulsions, collapse, difficulty breathing, coldness and eventually heart failure. However, death occurs so rapidly that many times the symptoms are missed.[11] Fatal poisoning in humans is very rare, only occurring after eating a lot of yew foliage. The lethal dose is reported to be between 50 and 100 grams.[12] The wood is also poisonous.[13] Some bow makers are reputed to have died from the frequent handling of the wood in their craft
    always always use a top quality mask when working with yew and when cleaning up the dust , and extraction if possible , some say the toxins remain even after the yew is seasoned , others say its fine , i tend to use it just for decoritive items , i wouldnt risk drinking out of a yew vessel , but it is stunning wood and love working with it ,
    one problem i have and wondered if you can help is how to advoid cracks in my bowls ect one massive yew bowl i made cracked but i dont think i oiled it enough , and left it in a hot conservatory over summer , should i work with them green , or wait till fully seasoned to work them , maybe a basic question , but not a turner more chainsaw carver.

  17. According to this page http://www.herbs2000.com/herbs/herbs_pacific_yew.htm some NW Pacific Native Americans made dishes etc from yew.

    I’ve been taking a yew tincture 3-4 times daily, presumably ingesting more taxine than you would from a cup or plate made of yew, and I’m still drawing breath. It does make me dizzy and nauseous, but I think that’s just an effect of bacteria and other stuff being killed off and producing neurotoxins (am treating neuroborreliosis) and I had the exact same effect from Banderol tincture, a recognised medicine for this condition. I don’t think someone without this condition would get dizzy and nauseous from such small amounts, but of course I could be wrong :)

    That yew cup looks absolutely beautiful.

  18. Thanks to all for responses here; it’s obviously a topic of great interest (and importance) around the globe.

    There are leaflets on wood safety here: http://www.hse.gov.uk/woodworking/index.htm?ebul=gd-woodworking

    I will turn Yew both wet and dry. Yew does have a habit of splitting, sometimes when you least expect it. I suspect if you are chainsaw carving then your bowls will be thick walled, and if produced from green wood then they will be more likely to crack and split. You could try coating the end grain with wax, oil-based paint Etc., leaving to dry out for a month or so and then finishing and removing the coating.

    I doubt there will ever be a definitive answer to this question. There are full specs on a wide range of woods (as you’ll see from the above link) and the one thing they all have in common is that they are widely used commercially, and as such present a potential health risk at commercial level and accordingly the tests are done. Yew isn’t a common commercialy used wood and as such wouldn’t repay the research. We are left with annecdotal and very generalised information.

    But all this suggests that great care should be taken, so try and use this as a guide and take care.

  19. Regarding my previous post on 25th April 2011. I have not turned any yew for nearly a year now after my last incident. One of the symptoms that I sufferered was that the vision in my right eye became blurred for a day or so afterwards and the wrinkles around my eye seemed to be deeper than usual. I recently decided to do some whittling about ten days ago. I chose a small piece of yew to work with as I reasoned that I would not be producing dust, only shavings and would therefore be ok. The next day the blurred vision reappeared and has been like that since. It has been about 10 days now and I have just returened from my optician. Having had a good examination I have now been referred to the hospital and I have an appointment about 2 months away!! I have just phoned the doctor to explain that I suspect TAXINE poisening is the cause and that I can hardly see out of the eye. I was told that the doctor will phone me back today. The symptoms this time are the same as last time only more so. Perhaps I rubbed my eye whilst carving. I will keep you all posted on the outcome.

  20. Hello Paul,

    I’m sorry to hear about your continuing trouble with Yew, but grateful for the update and added information. I’ll pass this on as a new post because many people still arrive here at woodturning blog looking for information of the toxicity of Yew. I hope your Doctor acts quickly and can sort the problem out for you. Do keep us posted.

    best regards,

    Andy

  21. I’ve been interested to read about yew wood, especially about the dust. I’m an amateur jeweller, and just learning how to work bog oak, which takes a high polish and looks great with silver. Its hard fineness is, I’m sure, due to the fact that it’s partly mineralised, containing iron and sulphur from its anoxic preservation in the bog. It’s also full of tannin, which colours it black, and it has to be kept dry or (I believe) the tannins leach out and discolour. But I’ve found, when filing it smooth, that the dust is extremely fine, smells of sulphur, and gives me asthma. Whether this is due to the tannins, or its partial fossilization, I can’t say.
    Yew is also very hard and fine-grained; perhaps some of the problem with its dust is that it can be inhaled more easily than coarser particles; though I’m inclined to blame the taxine for most of it.

  22. P.S.: for a really good example both of yew toxicity and human imbecility, see John Aubrey’s ‘Brief Lives,’ brought to life by Roy Dotrice and recorded on Youtube, and the lady who dreamed that if she gave her sick daughter a ‘drench of yew pounded,’ she would recover…

  23. Taxane is not water soluble, but is soluble in fat, alcohol and other organic solvents such as acetone. This means that drinking alcohol from a yew cup would be a bad idea, as would using it as a bowl for greasy food. Contact poisoning is unlikely, for dry goods. However, the action of taxane is to block new cell growth, meaning that pregnant women should avoid coming in contact with it under all circumstances!. One could remove the taxane via repeated immersion in an organic solvent, until the bulk of it had been washed out. Taxane is thermally stable to 220 degrees C. The dust of yew is very harmful to eye sight, and is a skin irritant. It must not be inhaled or death may ensue.

  24. Further to my last post on April 17 2012. After many trips to the hospital to see the eye consultant and taking in some information about my experiences with yew, I had every test that they could do with my eye to be told that there is nothing wrong with the eye itself. The problem is neurological and an MRI brain scan was conducted. The result showed demylination of the optic nerve. After a week in hospital in October I have now been diagnosed as having Multiple Sclerosis. A bit of a shock, but it has explained many other problems that I have encountered. It is now likely that I was actually having MS attacks when my eye was playing up. Perhaps the yew was coincidental? Perhaps it played a part? Who knows? Anyway – I don’t touch yew anymore – ever!

  25. Pingback: Pacific Yew- The Cognac of Wood | The Taproot

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