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Taking Heed of Wood's Hidden Danger

A Compound Used To Treat Home Decks And Playgrounds Contains Arsenic. Although Some Uses Will Be Banned, Worries Remain

Dec 30, 2002 | Philadelphia Inquirer

When a community group in Jenkintown decided to build a new playground, there was talk of turrets and towers, spiral slides and climbing walls.

Also on the organizers' minds was a more sobering thought: Would the wood poison their children?

Because of such concerns, the group joined a growing number of consumers who have chosen not to use a type of wood treated with a compound that contains arsenic.

"With children, it's better to be safe than sorry," said Cia Guerin, who was in charge of materials for the Jenkintown project.

Wood treated with the compound, called chromated copper arsenate (CCA), has been used in millions of decks and playgrounds since its use became widespread in the 1970s, and supporters say it does a great job of warding off termites, rot and mold. After the end of next year, however, it no longer can be sold for residential use.

The ban was announced in February by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which had negotiated the phaseout with the treated-wood industry, drawing praise from environmental groups. (The wood can still be sold for marine, agricultural and other nonresidential uses.)

Left unresolved, however, was a controversy over what to do with the decks and playgrounds already built.

The EPA is studying the risks of exposure to arsenic-treated wood, but in the meantime, agency officials say, there is no reason to replace the old structures. Industry officials note that no studies have shown anyone has gotten sick from normal contact with the wood.

If there were a problem, children who played on the playgrounds in the 1970s would be contracting cancer today, said Mel Pine, spokesman for the American Wood Preservers Institute.

Yet scientists now believe arsenic is even more dangerous than previously thought, prompted in part by a high rate of cancer in Bangladesh thought to be caused by arsenic contamination in well water.

And scientists at the Environmental Quality Institute, a research lab at the University of North Carolina-Asheville, have done tests suggesting that people using decks and playgrounds, especially small children, can be exposed to significant levels of the chemical. Lawyers in several states already are exploring the issue.

The Jenkintown group, which built the playground at Jenkintown Elementary School, opted instead for a combination of arsenic-free materials: plastic lumber and a pricier type of treated wood called alkaline copper quatenary. The wood was used for structural supports and siding, and the plastic for the parts that children touch, such as handrails and walkways.

Officials at Tague Lumber, which supplied some of the Jenkintown materials, said other consumers have shown an interest in such alternatives, including the University of Pennsylvania and the federal government.

Specifications on a federal low-income housing project recently in Camden called for the use of arsenic-free wood, said Kevin Potter, purchasing director for Tague, located in Philadelphia, Media and Phoenixville.

Yet many, including Potter, remain unconvinced that the old wood is bad. Home Depot says sales of the CCA wood remain high, said company spokesman Don Harrison.

Guerin, who bought the Jenkintown materials and also buys wood for her husband, a contractor, said he wasn't worried.

"My husband said, 'I've been getting splinters from CCA wood for 20 years now, and I'm OK,' " said Guerin, who has three children under 5.

The North Carolina studies have involved wiping wood to see how much arsenic comes off with casual contact.

Richard Maas, codirector of the institute that did the studies, said the median amount of arsenic picked up in a brief wipe test was 10 micrograms, though 20 percent of the wipes accumulated 50 micrograms or higher. Longer exposures can lead to far higher levels, he said.

Is that amount bad for you? Depends who you ask.

The EPA's allowable limit for arsenic in drinking water is 10 micrograms per liter a standard first proposed by the Clinton administration and later adopted by the EPA under Bush, after a controversial delay.

According to the most recent EPA analysis, a person who drinks water with that level of arsenic over 70 years has anywhere from a 1 in 3,000 to 1 in 15,000 chance of contracting bladder or lung cancer. A National Academy of Sciences analysis estimated the rate to be far higher, at more than 1 in 1,000.

Industry officials question whether a person could ingest a lifetime's worth of arsenic during a few years on the playground.

In addition, said Barbara Beck, a Cambridge, Mass.-based toxicologist who has studied the issue for the industry, the arsenic in wood is not as easily absorbed by the body as that in drinking water - a point disputed by other scientists and environmental groups.

In general, the industry contends that the wood has a safe level of arsenic (so long as it is not burned), and that the amount of arsenic declines as the wood is exposed to rain.

Not so, countered Maas, whose studies are funded in part by the Environmental Working Group, a Washington-based advocacy group. He said there is little difference in the amount of arsenic in decks exposed for six months and those exposed for 15 years.

Maas also contends that a person, particularly a toddler who puts hand to mouth frequently, can ingest a worrisome level of the chemical in just a few years. Studies also have shown that arsenic leaches from wood into surrounding soil.

"If we had the data we have now" on arsenic-treated wood, he said, "it never would've been approved in the first place."

Maas and environmental groups aren't suggesting that everyone rip out their backyard deck, conceding that it would be impractical for most.

But they do recommend washing hands after contact with the wood, applying wood sealant at least twice a year, and replacing boards that people touch frequently, such as handrails.

It pays to be careful, said Richard Wiles, a senior vice president at Environmental Working Group.

"It's arsenic; that's the bottom line with this stuff," Wiles said. "It causes cancer, and it will cause cancer in some of these children."

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