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When the Bush administration recently announced its intention to relax arsenic standards in drinking water, the public response was swift and loud. Newspapers nationwide devoted front-page coverage to the controversy, and it was only a number of hours before the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) assured the public it would maintain the current levels.
What wasn't reported about during the drinking water controversy, however, was another, more hazardous source of arsenic -- pressure-treated wood.
A study completed earlier this month by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and the Healthy Building Network (HBN) shows that arsenic in America's pressure-treated outdoor lumber is more dangerous than even the most lax water standards. Decks, fences, docks, picnic tables and playground sets: virtually all are host to high quantities of carcinogenic compounds.
The arsenic found in outdoor lumber is used in a wood treatment called chromated copper arsenate (CCA). The compound, which is 22 percent pure arsenic, is used to preserve wood and kill termites, despite the fact that arsenic has been classified as a carcinogen and is outlawed in all other pesticide use. Indeed, due to the combined lobbying efforts of powerful chemical companies and the equally influential lumber industry, wood treatments are the only arsenic product exempt from federal pesticide law.
"The wood industry accounts for over 50 percent of worldwide arsenic consumption," says EWG California Director Bill Walker, "so the line between the wood industry and the chemical lobbyist is nearly indistinguishable." Together, the two industries have ensured that unregulated, CCA-treated wood dominates the market.
Unfortunately, the arsenic doesn't just stay in the CCA-treated wood to kill termites. Absorbed through skin contact, ingested and leaked into water and soil, it also works its magic to all those who encounter it frequently. From acute poisoning that causes permanent nerve damage to increased cancer risk and serious illness, arsenic has been shown to leach from treated wood and harm both people and animals. The danger is so established that prominent zoos like the San Diego Zoo have prohibited the use of arsenic-treated wood to protect their animals.
Yet, our parks and playgrounds remain untouched. And the children who play on them are the ones most susceptible to arsenic's poison. The statistics are alarming:
- Current law allows less than 10 milligrams of arsenic per liter of drinking water and yet the average 12-foot-long, 2 x 6 piece of CCA-treated wood contains 1 ounce of pure arsenic -- enough to kill 250 adults.
- Children are estimated to ingest almost 630 milligrams per visit to a playground and after five minutes contact with treated wood, often have as much as 1,250 milograms of arsenic on their hands.
- After playing less than two weeks on a CCA-treated playset, an average five-year-old would exceed the lifetime cancer risk acceptable under federal pesticide law.
The wood products industry, however, attests to the safety of its products. They point to a 1990 study by the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC), which waved off CCA-treated wood as safe and rubber-stamped its continued use.
EWG analysis shows this study not only to be outdated, but dangerously inadequate. According to the current EWG report, the 1990 study was based on tests that underestimated arsenic exposure, neglected its connection to internal cancers and ignored the lumber industry's own analysis of unsafe arsenic levels on their products' surfaces. EWG also points out the former study fails to account for more recent studies that have shown children metabolize arsenic less efficiently than adults.
With all this proof, and the life-threatening implications of the poison, it begs the question, are there arsenic-free alternatives? Herein lies the kicker: every manufacturer that creates an arsenic wood treatment also makes one that is arsenic free. In fact, most of those who sell CCA-treated wood in the states also produce safer products for European markets. The lumber industry justifies this discrepancy by saying there is no demand for arsenic-free wood among American consumers.
Thus, the American retail market is precisely where change can be made. By insisting on CCA-free wood -- a product that neither of America's main lumber retailers, Lowes or Home Depot, currently stock -- the public could encourage the use of less dangerous pesticides.
Change is also happening on the policy level. A coalition led by EWG is fighting for an immediate ban on using CCA-treated wood in playground equipment, and is asking Congress to repeal the hazardous waste exemption that currently exists for arsenic-treated wood.
There is already some localized movement away from CCA-treated wood. After several playgrounds were closed due to high arsenic levels in Florida, the EPA announced that it is fast-tracking a review of CCA-treated wood. The Center for Environmental Health has also filed suit against manufacturers of wooden play structures to either cease using arsenic in their products or warn the public of its risks.
Meanwhile, EWG recommends taking immediate steps to insure the safety of children using outdoor wood equipment. These include making sure children wash their hands after contact with CCA-treated wood, especially before eating, and always covering picnic tables with plastic-coated tablecloths. They also recommend annual sealing of CCA-treated wood with polyurethane or other hard lacquers.
Although the prevalence of arsenic in playgrounds is daunting, the prospect for change is good.
"The wood industry has said that if they are forced to change, they will," says Bill Walker.