February 21, 2002
Arsenic-Laced Wood Prompts Concerns
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
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
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
A BIT OF HISTORY
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."
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
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.
ADULTS IMPACTED TOO
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
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
"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
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
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)