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Children Face Cancer Risks From Wood Playsets

Feb 12, 2003 | Environment News

Government officials warn that children face increased risks of developing lung or bladder cancer if they use playground equipment made of wood treated with an arsenic based pesticide called chromated copper arsenate.

More than 90 percent of wood playground equipment and residential decks now in use has been treated with chromated copper arsenate (CCA), which protects wood from rotting due to insects and microbial agents.

In a statement released last Friday, Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) chair Hal Stratton said his agency's scientists recommend that parents and caregivers thoroughly wash children's hands with soap and water immediately after youngsters play on playground equipment made of the treated wood.
Children also should not eat while on the equipment, Stratton said.

This is the first official acknowledgment by the federal government that there are health risks from structures built with the treated wood. Arsenic bleeds to the surface of the wood and the residue is easily absorbed through simple physical contact.

Young children are at particular risk because the residue sticks to their hands and they are likely to ingest it by hand to mouth contact.

The study confirms what "we've been saying all along," said Richard Wiles, senior vice president of the Environmental Working Group (EWG), which has petitioned to ban the use of CCA treated wood in playground equipment.

EWG and the Healthy Building Network filed a petition requesting the ban in June 2001, and Wiles argues the government has been far too slow in responding to growing evidence of the health risks posed to children by the treated wood.

"You have to be in some fantasy land to think this doesn't cause cancer in some kids," Wiles told ENS.
The CPSC study found that two to 100 of every one million children frequently exposed to CCA treated wood risk developing lung or bladder cancer from that exposure. The increased risk from CCA treated wood is in addition to other risks of developing cancer.

The wide range of risk comes from the difficulty in pinpointing the likelihood that exposure to arsenic will cause cancer. CPSC researchers based their conclusions on previous scientific studies of exposure to arsenic, which is a known carcinogen. According to the National Academy of Sciences, exposure to arsenic causes lung, bladder and skin cancer in humans, and is suspected as a cause of kidney, prostate and nasal passage cancer.

In February 2002, the EPA forged an agreement with industry to halt the use of CCA in new wood play sets and other consumer products by December 2003, but concluded that there was no reason to "remove or replace arsenic treated structures."

But a study by EWG, released in August 2002, contradicted this finding. EWG's report found that children who play on arsenic treated play sets and decks are at particularly high risk. The study analyzed the findings of consumers across the country who tested some 263 decks, play sets and picnic tables, as well as the arsenic contaminated soil beneath them.

According to EWG, the amount of arsenic wiped off a small area of wood about the size of a four year old's handprint, about 100 square centimeters, typically far exceeds what EPA allows in a glass of water under the Safe Drinking Water Act standard.

The EPA is conducting a study of the risks that may be associated with CCA treated wood and expects to release the report later this year. In addition, the EPA and CPSC staffs plan to conduct a study to determine effective measures of reducing the amount of arsenic released from CCA treated wood.

Sealants, argues EWG's Wiles, are not a long term solution and do not get rid of the arsenic. While a full recall of all treated wood may not be feasible the option should be explored for play sets, he added.

The EPA advises that individuals who decided to remove CCA treated wood playsets contact the agency or a state or local solid waste management office for disposal instructions. CCA treated wood should never be burned in open fires, the agency warns.

The CPSC will hold a public briefing on March 12, 2003 to consider the petition. CCA is a registered chemical pesticide that is subject to EPA regulation, but the playground equipment made with CCA treated wood is the jurisdictional responsibility of the CPSC. Stratton recommended that the agency wait on formal action until EPA has finished its own studies.

This decision, said Paul Bogart, director of the Healthy Building Network's arsenic treated wood phase out campaign, is "irresponsible."

Even with this new study, added Wiles, the federal government has not delivered "a coherent statement to the American public on this issue."

Bogart also criticized the limited scope of CPSC's study, which did not look at decks or picnic tables.

"The fact that the CPSC has restricted their conclusions to arsenic treated playsets doesn't make any sense," he said. "A child's body doesn't differentiate between the arsenic they get from their deck or their picnic table, and the arsenic from a playground."

Industry groups, including the American Wood Preservers Institute, believe the CPSC erred in releasing its findings prior to the completion of these other studies. The organization is unconvinced the wood treated with CCA poses a serious health risk, even though the industry and EPA have agreed to a ban.

CCA has been used to treat wood for since the 1940s, although its use for playsets and decks has largely been in the past two decades. On Friday, an industry group, the Treated Wood Council, said it "stands by the safety of CCA treated wood, when handled properly."

"The Treated Wood Council believes that the Consumer Product Safety Commission's (CPSC) release of a staff briefing on CCA treated wood in playground equipment is premature and could cause needless confusion among consumers and parents," the group said. "Given the numerous CCA studies by government and industry now underway, including an Environmental Protection Agency risk assessment expected later this year, the Treated Wood Council questions CPSC's decision to release information before the scientific findings from these additional studies are in."

But growing pressure on the regulation of wood preservatives is not limited to CCA. In December 2002, a national labor union, environmental groups, and a victim family filed suit in federal district court in Washington DC to stop the continued use of CCA, as well as pentachlorophenol and creosote, two other wood preservatives.

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