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Treated Wood Concerns Raised

Jun 13, 2003 | Vermont Press Bureau Some lawmakers want Vermont lumber dealers to stop promoting children’s play sets made with a kind of pressure-treated wood, saying the risk of exposure to arsenic is too great to wait until their sale is phased out next year.

Representatives of the wood products industry which will voluntarily cease selling pressure-treated play sets by Jan. 1 said the action was unnecessary, and that the health threat was overblown.

At a State House press conference Thursday the group’s organizer, Rep. Anne Donahue, R-Northfield, said she was “stunned” to see that some lumber yards were continuing to promote the use of lumber treated with an arsenic compound for building backyard swing sets or play sets.

Donahue was flanked by a number of advocates and some of the 40 or so other lawmakers who signed onto a letter urging retailers to stop promoting the lumber. She likened it to lead paint or asbestos insulation, which were widely used before the health hazards they posed became widely known.

“We’ve got a huge problem already to try to cope with,” she said, referring to decks and play sets already built with the lumber. “Please stop making it worse. Please don’t advertise and market and display and push the sales of arsenic-treated lumber for children to play on. It’s just not worth the risk.”

Chromated copper arsenic is used to pressure treat lumber to make it resistant to insects and rot, but studies have shown that arsenic, which is toxic, can leach out of the wood.

In the last several years, advocacy groups like the Washington-based Environmental Working Group have been calling for a ban on CCA-treated wood in playground equipment and an evaluation of its use in other home items. This spring the group extended that demand to include a recall of play structures on public grounds, and requirements that consumers who purchased play sets made with such wood get a full refund.

But the wood products industry claims that science has not shown any direct health hazard, and points out they’ve agreed to voluntarily stop making the product for residential use after the end of this year. It will still be available for fence posts and marine docks.

“It’s a moot issue; that’s our feeling,” said Barry Polsky, communication director for the American Forest and Paper Association.

He said the decision to stop treating wood with CCA had nothing to do with any potential health hazard.

“The reason it’s being phased out is not under any order of any medical group or agency,” Polsky said. “It’s just that there’s been so much negative publicity over the last few years it’s fruitless to try and sell it.”

A spokesman for Vermont lumber retailers said he believes Donahue and other advocates are overreacting.

“We maintain that the product is safe,” said Will Adams, lobbyist for the Vermont Retail Lumber Dealers Association. “The fact is there’s less arsenic in CCA-treated lumber than most drinking water, and to our knowledge there are no studies that have linked any illnesses to pressure-treated lumbers.”

The Environmental Protection Agency has not determined that there is a health risk and is studying the question, according to David Deegan, an EPA spokesman. The agency is hoping to release a preliminary risk assessment before the end of the year but is not urging immediate action.

“We’re not recommending that people have to remove an existing structure,” Deegan said, adding that the review of CCA was a routine one that the agency periodically undertakes.

“The review was not initiated because there was some kind of data that was causing us concern,” he said.

The data that Donahue and advocates point to is a study done by the Consumer Products Safety Commission that looked specifically at whether playground equipment made with CCA-treated lumber was a risk.

By measuring how much arsenic they could wipe off the wood, the CPSC then estimated how many times a child would then put their hand in their mouth and calculated how much arsenic they’d ingest if they played on the equipment 156 days each year for five years.

“The bottom line is we did calculate an increased lifetime cancer risk ranging from 2 in 1 million to 100 in a million,” said Ken Giles, spokesman for the Consumer Products Safety Commission.

He acknowledged that the risk was hypothetical but said the federal government takes notice of any cancer risks that exceed one in a million, even if it doesn’t consider them worthy of taking action.

“There are certainly bigger risks. But I’m not allowed to minimize this, and I’m not going to minimize this,” Giles said. “I’m not going to make it seem like it’s not worth being concerned about. It is worth being concerned about.”

State officials are already notifying schools and home daycare centers about potential risks from CCA-treated lumber. Donahue stressed that she wasn’t trying to hurt dealers or manufacturers, but said there was no reason to keep selling the product when there were non-toxic alternatives available

“Why do we not want to deal with what we know is a problem?” she asked.

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