Switzerland, Vietnam and Indonesia have completely banned it. Japan, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Australia and New Zealand have taken strong steps to limit its use. But, here in the U.S., you can find it in almost every hardware store in the country -- and in the vast majority of children's playgrounds.
The "it" in question is wood that has been pressure treated with arsenic. While the EPA has classified arsenic as a "Known Human Carcinogen," its prominent use in lumber here in the U.S. puts families, children, contractors, and uninformed consumers into daily contact with the chemical.
A recent report from the Environmental Working Group and the Healthy Building Network, two organizations working to improve environmental and human health, found harmful amounts of arsenic on pressure-treated wood for sale at Home Depot and Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse stores across the nation. Children and families have the greatest risk of exposure and sickness from this wood, the report says, because it is so common in playgrounds, picnic benches, porches and decks. Children playing on this treated wood, known as copper chromium arsenic (CCA) lumber, pick up the chemicals on their hands. The arsenic is then either absorbed through their skin or ingested when they put their hands in their mouths.
To collect data for the report, called "The Poisonwood Rivals," various public interest groups began by wiping pressure-treated wood they'd purchased from 18 Lowe's and Home Depot warehouses and then testing the wipes for arsenic levels. The tests found that a surface area about the size of a 4-year-old's hand (100 square centimeters) contained an average amount of arsenic that was 120 times the EPA's maximum daily amount allowed in a 6 ounce glass of water. Unsafe levels of arsenic were found on pressure-treated wood from every store surveyed for the report.
Such toxins can cause very real harm. Based on numerous other studies of arsenic exposure, the report estimates that "one out of every 500 children who regularly play on swing sets and decks made from arsenic-treated wood, or one child in an average size elementary school, will develop lung or bladder cancer later in life as a result of these exposures." Since arsenic-treated lumber is found in more that 90 percent of all outdoor wooden structures in the nation, that estimation applies to the vast majority of American children.
Thankfully, there's more than one way to pressure treat lumber. The alternative method with the most industry support is an arsenic- and chromium-free "alkaline copper quat" treatment, known as ACQ. ACQ wood is widely used in other countries, like Australia, where it was the only pressurized lumber certified for use in the construction of Sydney's Olympic Village. The Research Director at EWG, Jane Houlihan, says, "Home Depot and Lowe's both tout their concern for the environment, but even with alternatives readily available they continue to sell lumber full of a chemical that causes cancer. Home Depot and Lowe's should stop selling arsenic-treated lumber to families."
Home Depot spokesperson Don Harrison says that his stores have not seen a drop in the demand for CCA-treated wood, even though concerns about CCA-related health issues have gained greater public visibility over the last 12 months. "It is sold in all lumberyards all over the nation and is used by all builders for all types of projects," he added.
EWG and HBN assert that industry leaders like Home Depot and Lowe's are influential enough to dramatically constrict the market for arsenic-treated wood if they would stop selling it and, instead, demand safer lumber alternatives.
Mel Kay, president of a large west coast construction company specializing in decks and fences, says that lumber buyers across the country are eager to switch to alternative pressure-treated wood products. If ACQ were more widely available and more comparably priced, "We'd all switch tomorrow, if we could, if it was economically feasible," says Kay.
When asked about how Home Depot is reacting to the findings and recommendations published in "The Poisonwood Rivals," Harrison says their position is aligned with that of the EPA -- "When handled properly, CCA-treated wood is completely safe to use."
For its part, the EPA warns that arsenic in CCA-treated lumber "may be dislodged from the wood surface upon contact with skin," and "exposure to inorganic arsenic may present certain hazards." The agency advises against using arsenic-treated wood in close relation to food or animal feed, including "cutting boards, counter tops, animal bedding, and structures or containers for storing animal feed or human food." But it does not mention anything about using arsenic-treated wood for children's play areas, picnic benches, or other places where the public would be in direct, repeated contact with it. The EPA is currently reviewing CCA's threats to the public and plans to release "a focused assessment of the potential exposure of children to playground equipment built with CCA-treated wood."
In addition to recommending a full EPA ban on arsenic, and advising industry leaders like Home Depot and Lowe's to stop selling CCA-treated wood, "The Poisonwood Rivals" points out numerous corporate hypocrisies in the marketing of arsenic-laced products. Bill Walker, California Director of EWG, explains that while Lowe's and Home Depot recently promised to inform customers about safety concerns in using CCA-treated wood, they have squandered the opportunity by using safety warnings to promote products.
"They have turned that [safety] information on its head and advertised plastic and non-pressurized materials as arsenic-free and safe to children and animals," Walker says. The best way to avoid such duplicity, he asserts, would be to switch to genuinely safe lumber. "Instead of waiting to be forced by government regulations, the companies could lead market changes," Walker says. "There are plenty of alternative varieties of pressure-treated wood for Home Depot and Lowe's. They could convert tomorrow if they cared."
If you are concerned that you have arsenic-treated wood in your backyard or playground, visit the Environmental Working Group for information on home testing.
For more information and ways to help eradicate CCA-treated wood, contactBeyondPesticides.org, The Healthy Building Network, and The Environmental Working Group.