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Agencies Studying Cancer Risk of Play Sets

Feb 8, 2003 | The Washington Post

The Consumer Product Safety Commission is entering the long-running debate about the health dangers of playground equipment made of pressure-treated wood, a product that is being phased out because of concerns it can leach arsenic, a known human carcinogen.

The agency yesterday released a staff study of 12 playgrounds in the Washington area. It concluded that children who play on equipment made of wood treated with chromated copper arsenate could face an increased risk of developing lung or bladder cancer over their lifetime.

The staff also recommended, however, that the commission take no action until the Environmental Protection Agency completes a major study of the issue. A preliminary risk assessment is expected to be available for public comment in three to four months, officials said.

The EPA reached an agreement a year ago to phase out use of the preservative in new wood products by the beginning of next year. The preservative has been the principle chemical used on decks, playgrounds, picnic tables and similar outdoor structures.

The EPA has said that there is no reason to remove or replace existing structures. Yesterday's report from the product safety agency represents the first time a federal agency has concluded that there is a heightened danger for children using playground equipment made of pressure-treated wood. The commission staff concluded that two to 100 children in a million would have an increased risk.

The commission staff's conclusion could put pressure on the EPA to take stronger action.

"We are obviously going to take a look at what the CPSC has come up with," said EPA spokesman Joseph J. Martyak. In doing its risk assessment, he noted, the EPA is following a process of independent scientific peer review recommended by the agency's scientific advisory panel.

In conducting its study, the safety commission tested 12 playgrounds and eight decks in the Washington area to determine how much arsenic comes off treated wood and onto the hands during play. It considered how often children put their hands in their mouths, as well as how frequently and how long a child may use a playground. The work was reviewed by independent scientists, the commission said.

The staff published its finding late yesterday as commission Chairman Harold Stratton announced a March 12 hearing on its recommendations. Stratton noted that children's risk can be reduced by washing hands with soap and water immediately after playing on the treated wood. The staff also recommends that children avoid eating on playgrounds that contain the equipment.

The commission staff was responding to a petition from the nonprofit research organization Environmental Working Group, which sought a ban on existing playground equipment.

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