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February 21,  2002

Poisonous Playgrounds?
Arsenic-Laced Wood Prompts Concerns

(SafetyAlerts) - This week, Your Environment tackles a question from a reader concerned about the safety of chemical-treated wood used to make playground equipment. The question is timely: In response to many similar concerns, the Environmental Protection Agency is currently expediting its review of arsenic-treated wood.
Question: I have read about the chemical-treated wood and wood chips they are now using at playgrounds and on decks. Are these safe? Can they hurt my 2-year-old niece when she is playing?

Answer: Watching kids swing from the rungs of a jungle gym can be worry enough for parents. Now they may face another concern - the playground equipment their children are touching and climbing. Some experts are worried about arsenic, a key component in a substance widely used to treat the wood the equipment is made from.

Even though arsenic exists naturally in the earth?s crust - in rock, soil, shale and in the seas - it can be dangerous to the nervous system when inhaled, ingested or when it comes in contact with the skin. The Environmental Protection Agency considers it a human carcinogen. Arsenic is not just in park and playground wood. That green-tinged wood that is found in most outdoor lumber used for decks, patio furniture and benches, as well as wood chips recycled from them, is treated with a compound called chromated-copper arsenate. CCA is a mix of three chemicals: arsenic, used to repel insects; copper, used to kill molds and fungi and retard rot; and chromium, used to fix these two other chemicals. So effective is this mixture at preventing rot that CCA-treated wood lasts five times longer than other lumber placed outdoors, according to the preserved-wood industry. And the EPA prefers CCA as a less dangerous alternative to the preservers creosote and pentachlorophenol for helping wood keep longer and thus conserving trees.

Some 80 percent of the outdoor lumber is treated with CCA, and outdoor decking and construction has grown 14 times during the last 25 years. But as effective as it is in stopping rot, CCA, a restricted pesticide registered by EPA, is increasingly spurring health and environmental concerns. The fact that kids come in contact with this treated wood makes it particularly of concern, says Anne Lindsay, a manager in the Office of Pesticide Programs at EPA. The chemicals used to treat wood can stay in it for 10 years or more, says Lindsay. We also know that it can slowly leach out of the wood, and that it can rub off or turn up in the dirt underneath the play areas, but we?re not sure yet how much they can be exposed to.

Kids are particularly vulnerable to pesticides and preservatives, according to EPA, because they absorb more pesticide per pound of body weight. They are more likely to play on floorboards and decks and to put their hands in their mouths.

Ten years ago EPA and the Consumer Product Safety Commission, after reviewing studies showing that CCA was not readily absorbed through the skin, concluded that CCA-treated wood posed "no unreasonable risks" to ordinary consumers, while advising some precautions to anyone working with wood. The EPA decided against a mandatory label informing consumers of the presence of arsenic in favor of a voluntary label. But two years ago, "Kids? Space," a playground structure at Terwilliger Elementary School in Gainesville, Fla. was razed partly because of concerns about relatively high levels of arsenic leaking into the soil from the treated wood used to build the equipment. Since then, dozens of other playgrounds in Florida have closed in response to the scare. The Disney World Animal Kingdom theme park opted to use a less toxic treatment for their fencing and animal enclosures because of concerns that animals could be hurt by chewing on the wood. Meanwhile, new studies prompted EPA to reassess the safety of the wood treatment method and the CPSC to consider a petition to ban the compound in playground use. Among the studies:

A recent analysis done by University of Florida researchers for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection found that the dose of arsenic to children on playgrounds could be higher and more dangerous than that found in previously accepted studies. Toxicologist Stephen Roberts, a lead scientist on the study, found that previous calculations of risk - in terms of how much preservative might rub off on hands or be accidentally ingested - may have been vastly underestimated so as to "be unacceptable from a health protection standpoint."
?The California State Department of Health Services also looked at the amount of arsenic rubbed off on municipal playground surfaces and found significant risks in 1987. The state prohibited any state funds used to purchase playground or recreational equipment treated this way unless it was free of "visible arsenical surface deposits" and required sealants "to prevent direct skin contact with
the preservatives."
A coalition of consumer groups, including the Environmental Working Group and the Healthy Building Network, argue that arsenic is a much more potent cancer-causing agent than previously recognized and that more arsenic can be dislodged from wood surfaces than previously thought.

EPA is also concerned about CCA?s impact on workers, as well as do-it-your-selfers who might work with the wood. The danger is that the sawdust can be inhaled or ingested.
Take the example of Rick Feutz, a Washington state teacher who was building a floating raft for his kids. In the course of sawing the wood, he became achy and nauseous and was eventually diagnosed with arsenic poisoning. Years later, he still suffers loss of motor control, weakness in his arms and legs, and a partially-paralyzed face with a drooping eye. Earlier this spring, lawyers in Miami filed a class action lawsuit against the wood preservative industry, Home Depot and Lowe?s. Their suit claims that people are being poisoned by the arsenic in the wood, and that the industry showed a "negligent, reckless, and/or intentional disregard of the harmful effects of the chemicals used in the treatment process."

In response, the American Wood Preservers Institute, which represents the industry, said that the treatment method is totally safe, adding that there have been no medical studies showing evidence of harm from contact with this wood. "The small amounts of arsenic that come off the wood are not a concern," says Scott Ramminger, a spokesman for the AWPI. Nevertheless, Ramminger says, AWPI will abide by any new findings and recommendations by EPA and CPSC.The EPA is currently expediting its review of CCA, in response to public demands and call for action by Congress. This week, Senator Bill Nelson (D.-Fla.) called for EPA to report to Congress within a month on whether it was safe for children to play on or around CCA-treated wood and for consumers to use it for decks and other applications.

As part of the expedited review, EPA has commissioned new health studies to look at the residues of chemicals coming off playground surfaces. At issue, says EPA?s Lindsay, is whether residues are high enough to warrant concern, since kids "spend a lot of time on playground equipment." The agency is also looking at occupational exposures and trying to assess what level is safe. What may be a bigger issue is how much CCA leachate gets into the soil and where it goes. More than 10 million cubic meters of CCA-treated wood is manufactured each year to make picnic tables, decks, highway sound barriers, telephone poles, docks and other structures, notes David Stilwell, author of a study by the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station. "Due to the massive amounts of CCA treated wood sold each year, the extent of dispersal of these additives from the wood could have a considerable environmental impact," he wrote in the Bulletin of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology.

By September, EPA could have some new standards for the industry or a response to consumers, says Lindsay.
The CPSC invites public comment on the ban, so if you?d like to comment on the petition to ban CCA from wood products used in playgrounds, you can respond by Sept. 11, 2001.In the meantime, if you have pressure-treated wood, and you?re concerned, EPA cautions against becoming alarmed. ?"ake commonsense measures and wash your children?s hands after they play," says Lindsay, "just as you would on any playground."

Renee Sharp, a toxicologist with Environmental Working Group, which did its own review of the wood in a report called "Poisoned Playgrounds," suggests that parents ask their local parks and school whether playground equipment has CCA-coated wood; if so, the wood can be coated with polyurethane and other sealants to help protect children?s health. Do-it-your-selfers, she adds, should turn to other options, such as naturally pest-resistant types like cedar, redwood or other arsenic-free alternatives.

Francesca Lyman is an environmental and travel journalist and editor of the American Museum of Natural History book, "Inside the Dzanga-Sangha Rain Forest" (Workman, 1998)

Source: MSNBC

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