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Playing With Arsenic

May 8, 2004 | THE NEWS-GAZETTE

On a sunny spring day, Prairie Play in Urbana's Meadowbrook Park is one popular place.

Children chase each other through a wooden, castlelike tower and try to keep their balance while walking across wooden beams.

Built in 1995, Prairie Play, like many public and backyard play-sets, was made with lumber pressure-treated with a compound called CCA (chromium, copper and arsenic) in order to prevent rotting and insect infestation.

Following concerns that the arsenic could come out of the wood, the lumber industry decided to phase it out of production. And as of Jan. 1, lumber companies stopped manufacturing it for most residential uses, such as decks and playgrounds.

According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, exposure to the arsenic in the wood might increase a person's risk of developing lung or bladder cancer over a lifetime.

Risk levels depend on the amount of arsenic released from the wood, the amount picked up on hands, the number of days and years a child plays on the wood and the amount transferred to the mouth by hand-to-mouth activity, according to the commission.

Urbana parent Dawn Miller, who spent Thursday afternoon at Prairie Play with her 3-year-old son Lucas said she wasn't concerned.

"If it was that bad they'd tear it down and the city wouldn't let the kids play on it. Plus, they seal it every year," she said.

The compound's phase-out was announced in 2002, but many lumber stores and park districts have been moving away from it for several years.

"It's important the consuming public understands it was never banned. Concerns were raised by some groups," said Dawn Sands, spokeswoman for the hardware store Menards. "The industry moved away from it as a precautionary measure."

To prevent leaching of the arsenic, Urbana Park District staff apply a petroleum-based sealant annually to the playground equipment at Prairie Play. When wood pieces need to be replaced, the district replaces them with recycled plastic lumber.
"This is something we've known about for years. There have been studies indicating it might be a good idea to move away from the product," said Dana Mancuso, marketing coordinator with the district.

Three Urbana playgrounds that were made with CCA-treated wood at Blair, Carle and Wheatfield parks are not coated with a sealant.

"Those three are on the list of playgrounds that need to be replaced as funds become available," Mancuso said.

Mancuso recommended people who use these playgrounds follow general precautions, such as washing their hands.
In addition to the recommendation of washing hands, the Consumer Product Safety Commission said people should not put food directly on the wood surfaces.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency does not recommend consumers remove any of their decks or playgrounds that were built with the treated lumber. Consumers can, however, apply an oil-based or semi-transparent coating to the wood every year.

The EPA and Consumer Product Safety Commission are studying a variety of coatings and sealants to determine how effective they are at reducing the amount of arsenic that comes out of the wood.
Some wood products that are not treated, such as redwood or cedar. These are not prone to rot, unlike pine, which is typically treated, Sands said. Because woods like redwood are pricier, most people use them for picnic tables or outdoor furniture, and not for construction uses, such as building a pole barn, Sands said.

Most of the lumber for sale in hardware stores is now treated with a nonarsenic compound called ammonium copper quaternary. This summer the Urbana Park District will install a boardwalk in Busey Woods made with lumber treated with that compound.

Another alternative compound now used to treat wood is copper boron azole.

Consumers and park districts can also replace treated lumber with recycled plastic.

"The only things we have that are pressure-treated in playgrounds are the timbers that border the equipment and contain the woodchips," said Terri Gibble, project planner with the Champaign Park District. "We have looked into using alternative resources for borders, including the recycled plastic."

Over the last 20 years all the wooden playgrounds in the parks owned and managed by the Champaign Park District have been replaced with steel or aluminum, she said.

Arsenic risk

According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, exposure to the arsenic in lumber pressure-treated with a compound called CCA (chromium, copper and arsenic) might increase a person's risk of developing lung or bladder cancer over a lifetime.

Although the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency does not recommend consumers remove their decks or playgrounds that were built with the treated lumber, they can apply oil-based or semi-transparent coatings to the wood each year to help seal the arsenic in.

Officials also recommend washing hands after contact with the wood and advise consumers never to place food items on it.

Most of the lumber for sale in hardware stores is now treated with nonarsenic compounds called ammonium copper quaternary, or copper boron azole.

Treated lumber can also be replaced with recycled plastic.


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