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U.S., Canada Groups Sue Over Toxic Wood Preservers

Dec 11, 2002 | Environment News

Environmental and labor groups from the U.S. and Canada have teamed up in a lawsuit challenging the continued U.S. use of wood preservatives containing arsenic and other harmful substances. The groups say the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has "overwhelming data" regarding the health and environmental risks posed by the preservatives, and cite the availability of safer, affordable alternatives.

Citing "inadequate and long delayed" government action on wood preservatives, the groups filed suit in federal district court in Washington DC, asking the court to force the EPA to halt all use of the wood preservatives chromated copper arsenate (CCA), pentachlorophenol (penta) and creosote.

A voluntary agreement will phase out the use of CCA treated wood in all playground equipment by January 2004. Earlier this year, the EPA announced a voluntary agreement with the wood preserving industry to phase out by the end of 2003 the use of CCA treated wood in certain residential structures, but took no action on other uses of CCA wood, or on the preservatives penta and creosote.

That agreement does not go far enough to protect the public and the environment, and affects just a small portion of the pesticide treated wood now in use, charges the lawsuit filed Monday. The groups cite high cancer risks from exposure to treated wood, contaminated soil and worker risks.

"EPA action to protect the public, workers and the environment from these wood preservatives is long overdue, and this lawsuit seeks to compel the agency to do its job," said Jay Feldman, executive director of the national environmental group Beyond Pesticides, the lead petitioner.

Joining Beyond Pesticides in filing the suit are the Communications Workers of America (CWA), the Canadian Labour Congress and the worldwide Union Network International, the Oakland, California based Center for Environmental Health, and a victim family from Florida.

The suit charges that the arsenic and dioxin laden wood preservatives, which are used to treat lumber, utility poles and railroad ties, among other products, are known carcinogens that harm utility workers exposed to treated poles, children playing near treated structures, and the environment. The practice of allowing the disposal of treated wood in unlined dumps or its recycling into mulch increases the chances of soil and water contamination, according to the lawsuit.

The phase out announced in February does not affect the nation's 130 million utility poles treated with CCA and other toxic substances.

"Because of the Environmental Protection Agency's failure to act, tens of thousands of our members continue to be exposed daily to dangerous chemical wood preservatives that have severe and debilitating effects on workers' long term health," said Morton Bahr, president of the Communications Workers of America. This is a serious workplace issue that must be addressed."
The 700,000 member union group, which is affiliated with the AFL-CIO, represents some 25,000 workers who, through the course of their telephone repair, service and installation work, come into regular contact with utility poles that have been treated with these dangerous substances. In written comments and filings to the EPA, CWA has stressed that the agency's plan for a partial phase out of CCA will not adequately protect human health and the environment.

CWA called on the EPA to shorten its proposed phase out period and cancel all uses of CCA, and address other types of pesticide treated wood. Bahr said the agency did not provide a "substantive response" to CWA's comments.

Chemically treated wood products are used by utility companies for wood poles, construction companies for lumber and railroad owners for railroad ties. Wood treated with CCA is also available through retail markets such as home improvement and hardware stores, where consumers can buy treated wood for decking and other outdoor uses.

Long term arsenic exposure can lead to skin lesions and keratosis, a hardening of the skin.

According to the latest data available from the American Wood Preservatives Institute's 1995 statistical report, about 1.6 billion pounds of wood preservatives are used to treat wood each year, including 138 million pounds of CCA, 656 million pounds of penta, and 825 million pounds of creosote.

The three wood preservatives targeted by the lawsuit are linked to a wide range of health problems including cancer, birth defects, kidney and liver damage, disruption of the endocrine system and death. Two of the components of CCA, arsenic and chromium (VI), are classified as known human carcinogens.

Penta, classified as a probable carcinogen and a known endocrine disruptor, is contaminated with dioxins that the National Institutes of Health has classified as known human carcinogens. Creosote, a mix of toxic chemicals, is a cancer causing agent and is can cause nervous system damage.

The EPA has calculated that children exposed to soil contaminated with penta leaching out of utility poles face a risk of cancer that is 220 times higher than the agency's acceptable level. Researchers have also determined that children could get enough arsenic on their hands from touching treated wood playgrounds and decks to pose a serious health risk.

In the U.S., inorganic arsenic is primarily used to preserve wood, such as this pressure treated lumber.

Other EPA data suggests that a typical worker who paints penta onto poles in the field may face more than a 100 percent lifetime risk of cancer, the suit notes. Workers such as utility pole installers also face risks many times above EPA's acceptable level.
Despite the phase out announced in February, CCA treated wood used to build playground equipment and decks will be available in the marketplace for years, as wood preservers agreed to stop producing wood for these uses only as of December 31, 2003. Wood treated before that date can continue to be sold as long as it is in stock.

The lawsuit also cites EPA test results that indicate that continued disposal of treated wood in municipal landfills does not provide necessary protection, and violates the agency's hazardous waste regulations. Beyond Pesticides has filed a separate petition urging EPA to reclassify pesticide treated wood waste as hazardous, citing requirements in law.

The American Wood Preservers Institute (AWPI), an industry group, challenges the risks attributed to its products, citing a study performed by a group of Florida physicians who concluded that normal use of pressure treated wood in playgrounds is not harmful to children. The panel of six physicians was appointed in 2001 at the request of the Florida Department of Health to study the use of CCA.

"The amount of arsenic that could be absorbed from playground soil and CCA treated wood is not significant compared to natural sources and will not result in detectable arsenic intake," the panel wrote in a report issued in August.

Arsenic from CCA treated wood can leach into groundwater, contaminating drinking water supplies. (Photo courtesy U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

"After a year spent reviewing all aspects of CCA treated wood, this expert panel of doctors came to a simple conclusion - CCA treated wood is safe for use in playsets," said Parker Brugge, executive director of the Treated Wood Council and president of AWPI. "Treated wood has been used safely for nearly 70 years. Based on this report, parents can be assured that children can safely play on recreational equipment made of preserved wood."

The environmental group Beyond Pesticides counters that the availability of safer, cost effective alternatives to wood treated with the three toxic preservers make it unnecessary to expose children or anyone else to the potentially toxic products.

In petitions to the EPA filed last year, and comments on the voluntary partial phase out of CCA submitted earlier this year, Beyond Pesticides cited options including a number of wood preserving chemicals that do not contain arsenic, chromium, penta or creosote, such as Alkaline Copper Quaternary (ACQ), Copper Boron Azole (CBA), Copper-8-quinolinate, and borate based preservatives.

However, even those chemicals should be considered only as a last resort, Beyond Pesticides cautioned, noting that they have some problems of their own. Instead, the group says, consumers and the construction industry should look to sustainably harvested, naturally pest resistant wood species, such as cedar and redwood; recycled steel, fiberglass, or concrete for utility poles or the burial of utility lines; recycled plastic for marine pilings; and composite lumber made with recycled plastic.


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