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Play Sets' Arsenic Risk Alarms Parents

Wood sometimes treated with compound

Aug 9, 2004 | The News Journal

Playtime spills and scrapes used to be Ed Webb's biggest worry when he looked at the backyard wooden play set he bought for his family's suburban home north of Middletown several years ago.

Cancer risks were the furthest things from his mind. But reports of potential health threats posed by a chemical widely used in lumber treatment have given Webb and many others across the country cause for a second look at outdoor items long taken for granted.

"I assumed it would be safe or they wouldn't have sold it to me," said Webb, who lives near Mount Pleasant.

The Environmental Protection Agency withdrew approvals last year for production and sale of most wood items treated with a chemical called copper chromated arsenate, or CCA. The arsenic-tinged compound had been used for generations to give rot- and bug-resistance to play sets, wooden patios and picnic tables, among other products. The EPA action, which left some agricultural and marine uses unaffected, followed years of debate about evidence that significant amounts of the arsenic-bearing chemical leak out of the wood.

CCA exposure poses a special risk for children who absorb the residue through their skin or mouths, according to the EPA and other agencies. Consumer Product Safety Commission studies calculated that children who play on CCA-treated wood have a two-in-a-million to 100-in-a-million extra lifetime risk of developing lung or bladder cancers. The EPA often sets a goal of no more than one-in-a-million extra risk of cancer for its health risk decisions.

Other reports have raised concern over long-term soil contamination around CCA-treated woods and threats posed by toxic fumes or soil pollution from burning or dumping the materials.

"While the agency has not concluded there is an unreasonable risk to the public from these products, EPA believes that any reduction in exposure to arsenic, a known human carcinogen, is desirable," the EPA said in a recently published strategy for assuring compliance with the product ban.

The same strategy suggests coating arsenic-treated wood with sealant paints once or twice a year to limit risks of exposure. More costly but less toxic chemicals have replaced CCA in most uses, but stores are allowed to sell remaining stocks. CCA-treated posts remain available in a few Delaware stores, according to a check of lumber outlets in the state.

"I never knew, never heard a word. I just went to the store and bought it," said Webb, who also has a treated wood deck. The deck sports a decorative coat of paint, while he has only pressure-washed the play set.

Most of the CCA wood is sold without labels or warnings, leaving Webb and most owners unable to confirm the presence of arsenic without sending samples away for laboratory tests.

Delayed action

Consumer and environmental groups said the EPA should have launched a campaign years ago to help consumers identify and properly manage CCA lumber. Arsenic levels found on a child's hand after it was wiped on a play set, for example, can have concentrations far in excess of those now allowed for public drinking water.

"As we see it, the EPA had over 20 years of information and should have taken action much sooner," said Shawnee Hoover of the National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides, an environmental group. "What has resulted is the burden of risk and cleanup has shifted to the general public and every single local community that was unaware of the hazard while the EPA was aware."

Arsenic, a naturally occurring element, triggered ongoing, costly studies and cleanup efforts around Wilmington when it turned up in soils around the city that were tainted by chemicals from defunct leather tanneries. Arsenic also has turned up in slag from 19th-century industries used to fill hundreds of acres of marsh around Wilmington.

Delaware's Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control describes CCA-treated wood as an "emerging issue" for solid- and hazardous-waste managers, but has not issued any testing requirements or restrictions on disposal. Nancy Marker, program manager for DNREC's solid- and hazardous-waste program, said federal officials have cautioned against grinding up CCA-treated wood for mulch because of pollution risks.

Removal from parks

The wooden sets are disappearing from public parks around the state, more often because of maintenance concerns than health warnings.

"We've just been phasing out wood; it got popular 20 years ago, but they didn't wear as well," said Stanley W. Kozicki, Wilmington's deputy director of parks and recreation.

Nonhazardous cedar wood was used in one of the three wooden sets remaining in Wilmington's 43 playgrounds, Kozicki said. He said he did not know what chemical was used to treat the other two. Plans already are under way to replace one of the two possible CCA-contaminated sets, at Cool Spring park. Another wood set at 13th and Claymont streets was replaced last month by a new steel set.

"There are probably many schoolyards and places around the country where this wood is still in use," said Lauren Sucher, spokeswoman for Environmental Working Group, an organization that has campaigned for a ban on the wood.

The EPA has said it considers wholesale removal of arsenic-treated wood products unwarranted, although the agency plans to ban the same materials from wetlands and marine environments on Dec. 31.

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