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A Danger May Be Lurking In Your Own Backyard

Feb 6, 2002 | KIRO 7 EYEWITNESS NEWS

A Team 7 Consumer Investigation exposes a danger that may be lurking in your own backyard.

A fence, a sandbox -- even your child's play set could be made of "toxic timber."

We're talking about pressure-treated lumber, the kind sold in home improvement stores everywhere.

It's resistant to rot and fungus because it's treated with a pesticide called CCA, Chromated Copper Arsenate which contains arsenic, a known carcinogen.

For years, the lumber industry has insisted it's safe--our investigation suggests otherwise.

It's supposed to be where children are safest, their own back yard.

So when Chuck Whittrock built his kids a swing set and sandbox of pressure treated wood ten years ago, he didn't give it a second thought.

"Everybody uses it, we thought it must be safe," he says.

But something was wrong, 10-year-old Erick and 8-year-old Alex began developing odd, unexplained symptoms.

With Erick, it was vision problems.

"I was reading books way younger than I should be," he says.

Alex also had vision problems, and wild, unexplained temper tantrums.

"'Cause he would hit at us when he was mad and angry that we had to wrap him up in a sheet to contain him," says Sherry Whittrock, their mother.

After years of medical dead ends, the Whittrocks in desperation finally decided to have Alex tested for heavy metal poisoning.

"And were shocked to find he had arsenic off the chart," Sherry Whittrock says.

Erick and Alex had been exhibiting these symptoms for years, but the family was never sure exactly where the arsenic was coming from.

They were shocked to discover it could be coming from their own backyard. That's when they decided to call us.

With the help of Paul Bogart of the Healthy Building Network, we dug soil and swabbed timber.

All in accordance with testing procedures endorsed by the EPA.

We took samples not only from the children's play structures, but also the family's vegetable garden -- which has raised beds made of pressure treated wood.

And because arsenic does occur naturally in soil, we took a couple of control samples as well.

According to the Washington Department of Ecology the expected naturally occurring level of arsenic in soil is 7 parts per million.

Clean-up level is 20 parts per million.

Our tests show the control sample at 8 parts per million. But the soil in the Whittrock's garden was 25.6 parts per million -- over the State clean-up level.

It gets worse. The soil around the swing set was 154.4 parts per million, almost 8 times the state clean-up level.

But the real shocker was the whopping 802 micrograms per 100 square centimeters of arsenic on the surface of the swing set itself.

"For a residential setting, for older wood, this is way above anything they've tested to date," says Paul Bogart of the Healthy Building Network.

Experts say high levels of arsenic in soil and on the surface of wood are dangerous to kids because the poison rubs off on their hands, then they place their hands in their mouths.

And once poisoned, symptoms are often misread.

"We're seeing so many children that are being labeled A.D.D. or depressed and really what is probably going on is the neuro cognitive effects of heavy metals," says Dr. Lyn Hanshew, a Family Medicine Practitioner who specializes in testing kids for exposure to heavy metals.

The Pressure Treated Lumber Industry refuses to comment directly on the Whittrock case. But manufacturers continue to insist CCA treated wood IS safe.

"CCA is a chemical that's been around for gosh 75 or 100 years, and has had a very good track record of safety and efficacy ... and it's been a tremendous product," says Stan Bishroprick, President of Exterior Wood, Inc., a firm that makes pressure-treated wood.

The Whittrocks, though, aren't so sure. Both boys are now in detox for their heavy metal poisoning.

"Hope you enjoyed the swing set while it lasted, cause that's got to go," says Chuck Whittrock.

Because of stories like this, the EPA and the Pressure Treated Lumber Industry are in talks, even as we speak on a voluntary phase-out of CCA treated wood.

Right now, the EPA is not advising consumers to remove existing decks or other structures because "the amount of arsenic that leaches from CCA-treated lumber drops significantly as the wood ages."

A direct contradiction what we found: a 10-year-old swing set that's apparently still leaching lots of arsenic.


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