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Safety Concerns Cut Down Treated Lumber Used By Millions

Dec 28, 2003 | USA TODAY

In three days, the pressure-treated lumber used for millions of backyard decks, fences and play sets will head into extinction, its production halted because its arsenic-laced preservatives are considered a cancer risk.

No one is ready for what comes next.

Federal officials have little advice for the 50 million homeowners who have pressure-treated wood structures. They don't want to suggest that all those porches and swing sets be torn down. But they haven't identified a sealant that will protect people from the wood's chemicals.

Meanwhile, producers of pressure-treated lumber are wrestling over how to meet the $4 billion-a-year demand for wood that resists rot and pests. An alternative treatment favored by some manufacturers is raising safety concerns and has yet to get federal approval despite heavy lobbying.

This isn't the smooth goodbye that was promised when federal regulators decided that one of America's favorite building products had to come off the market.

It's been almost two years since the Environmental Protection Agency struck a deal with the wood-treatment industry to phase out production of lumber permeated with chromated copper arsenate, or CCA. About 90% of all pressure-treated wood contains the arsenic-based compound. Industry experts estimate that 75 billion feet of CCA-treated boards are in use nationwide enough to stretch halfway around the world.

The 22-month phaseout ends Wednesday, though stores can sell remaining stocks after production ends.

The EPA said the phaseout was a way to "ensure that future exposures to arsenic are minimized," while giving producers time to move to alternative products.

Yet with the transition period about to end, CCA-treated lumber still dominates the market. And manufacturers have produced enough to keep it in stores for months.

The arsenic in CCA-treated wood is linked to bladder, liver and lung cancer. A draft EPA study issued last month found that the lifetime risk of an arsenic-related cancer for children who play frequently on CCA-treated structures could be as high as one in 100,000, 10 times the one-in-a-million threshold the agency usually considers to be a significant public health threat.

Consumer worries

Jay Feldman of the environmental group Beyond Pesticides says the phaseout left CCA-treated wood on the market too long: "The EPA was looking for a low-impact economic solution for manufacturers while putting the public health and environment at risk."

Manufacturers of CCA-treated wood say it contains too little arsenic to cause illness. After decades of production, they say, a phaseout was the only way to shift to a replacement product without destroying the industry.

When JoAnn Lemm heard in the spring of 2002 that CCA-treated lumber would be phased out, she opted not to wait. Lemm worried about the play set her daughter used in the yard of their home in Scottsdale, Ariz. Nearby shrubs were dying, and she suspected the treated wood. So she got a free arsenic test kit from the Environmental Working Group, a non-profit organization that had pushed for a ban on CCA-treated wood.

Soil from under the play set had arsenic levels about 50% higher than the EPA's cleanup standard for arsenic at Superfund pollution sites, according to Sean Gray, an Environmental Working Group analyst who reviewed the data.

"We said, 'That thing is outta here,' " Lemm recalls. She and her husband replaced it a month later.

The new play set is made from one of several plastic and composite products that are sold to replace or cover CCA-treated decks, play sets and fences. Lemm likes the way it looks and says, "The bushes have come back nicely."

Lemm followed the lead of many states and municipalities that have replaced CCA-treated picnic tables and playgrounds at public parks. But the costs can be high. Replacing an average backyard deck with a non-CCA product, whether it is a different wood or a substitute made of artificial materials, can cost upwards of $20,000. New plastic and composite materials available for sheathing CCA decking also can cost thousands to buy and install.

The EPA has not suggested that people replace or cover CCA-treated structures. Officials say the agency will stick with its advice that people especially children wash up after touching CCA-treated wood.

But the EPA's new CCA risk study is spurring calls for stronger statements on the wood's safety.

That study found that cancer risks are marginal for children who play occasionally on structures made of CCA-treated wood. But risks can be significant for those who use them frequently throughout the year. Children who put their hands in their mouths compound the risks.

Awaiting sealant study

The EPA says people who are concerned about CCA-treated decks and play sets should seal them regularly. But the agency hasn't delivered a promised study to assess which sealants work best — or whether any work at all.

"It's a two-year study, and we're three months in, so we don't have a lot of data," says Jim Jones, director of the EPA's pesticide office, which regulates CCA.

Several big producers of pressure-treated lumber have decided to switch from CCA to a compound called alkaline copper quat, or ACQ. But some players in the treated-wood world want to use ACC, or acid copper chromate. ACC is legal, but it's not in production. And the EPA has not granted would-be manufacturers a "registration" to make it.

The EPA is concerned about the safety of ACC-treated wood because it comes off productionlines containing a form of chromium that also can cause cancer. The chromium subsequently converts to a non-hazardous state, but there's debate over whether that takes a few weeks or a few months.

Citing potential risks, EPA staff recommended this year that no new registrations be granted for ACC production. But the decision was held up after EPA Deputy Administrator Stephen Johnson met at the White House last month with former Senate majority leader Bob Dole, who is lobbying for a company seeking an ACC registration. Now, the EPA is reassessing the compound.

"There's a legal process for getting this registration, and we've met all the requirements," says Dennis Morgan of Forest Products Research Laboratory, the company that Dole represents. In the meantime, a half-dozen members of Congress are urging the EPA to keep ACC off the market. Most are from states where companies hold registrations to produce ACQ.

"The trouble with these (product safety) decisions is you get tremendous pressure," says Michael Brown, a former general council at the EPA and the Consumer Products Safety Commission. "Safety has a price, and these glitches in the process are part of it."

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