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Is Danger Lurking In Your Back Yard?

May 13, 2002 |

Most of us have it somewhere around our homes, but now pressure-treated wood used for backyard decks and playgrounds is being banned by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The wood can be found in many playground sets, picnic tables and backyard decks. Day after day, cartloads of it are sold at lumberyards and home improvement warehouses. However, most people do not know that the wood can be toxic.

The wood is treated with a powerful pesticide called Chromated Copper Arsenate, or CCA.

"It's colorless and odorless, and as a consequence there's no warning," Dr. Ruth Heifetz at the U.C. San Diego School of Medicine told NBC 7/39. " The wood looks perfectly benign."

Tom Holmes used pressure treated wood for the support beams in his children's playhouse because it resists termite damage. Only later did he learn the wood contains a CCA.

He found out that, over time, the arsenic in the wood could leach into the soil. Holmes became concerned, because the space underneath the playhouse was an irresistible place for his children to play.

"It made me wonder whether I should have it at my house," he said.

CCA Is Banned But Still Available

The Environmental Protection Agency banned CCA-treated lumber in February. But stores can continue to sell it until the end of next year. Until then, the only warning for consumers is a small label about half the size of a business card that warns of the danger. But you can also identify pressure-treated lumber because it has hundreds of small slits cut in the surface to help the CCA soak in.

Heifetz warns that the arsenic in the lumber can cause long-term health problems and even cancer.

"I have grandchildren, and I know I wouldn't want my grandchildren anywhere near those materials," Heifetz said.

Scientists say there are plenty alternative woods on the market that are resistant to insects and rot without toxic chemicals. But pressure-treated lumber is less expensive than redwood and cedar, and stores say it continues to outsell the alternatives in San Diego.

Poison Poses Greatest Risk To Children

Health officials believe CCA poses the greatest risk to children. They crawl across it, hang on it, and swing on it. They get arsenic all over their hands and then do what most children do, put their hands, now treated with arsenic, in their mouths.

But adults can get sick, too, from inhaling sawdust and absorbing arsenic through the skin. CCA-treated wood is most dangerous when it is burned. The arsenic is released into the air, and it concentrates in the ashes. Just one tablespoon of ash contains a lethal dose of arsenic.

The following recommendations can help protect children, pets and others from possible arsenic exposure:

Seal existing treated-wood structures every one to two years with a weather-resistant coating of polyurethane or an oil-based, semi-transparent stain. Penetrating sealants form a barrier on the wood surface that can significantly reduce the amount of arsenic released from the wood while also protecting and preserving the wood.

Keep children and pets away from under-deck areas, where arsenic may have leached.
Make sure children wash their hands thoroughly after playing on wood structures, especially before eating or drinking.

Food should not come into direct contact with any treated wood. Cover tables with tablecloths.
Treated wood should not be used where it may come into direct or indirect contact with drinking water.

Do not sand CCA structures or power-wash by highly abrasive means.

Do not use CCA-treated wood for picnic tables, garden beds or compost bins, and do not grow edible plants near CCA-treated decks.

Do not burn CCA-treated wood, as toxic chemicals may be released in the smoke and become concentrated in the ashes.

Cut CCA-treated wood outdoors and wear a dust mask, goggles and gloves. Clean up all sawdust, scraps and other construction debris and dispose of in the trash.

After working with CCA-treated wood, wash exposed skin, especially hands, with soap and water before eating, drinking or using tobacco products. Wash work clothes separately from other household clothing before wearing them again.
Homeowners who are planning to add or repair a deck, playground or other outdoor structures should look for arsenic-free alternatives such as redwood, cedar, arsenic-free treated wood, plastics, composite materials or metal.

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