Our Stolen Futurea book by Theo Colborn, Dianne Dumanoski, and John Peterson Myers
 
 

 

Washington Post
14 June 2003

Pressurized Wood Is Under Fire
By Rebecca R. Kahlenberg

In October 2001, Laurette Janak proudly watched her daughter, then 6, play alongside her dad while he sanded the family's 18-year-old pressure-treated wood deck.

Janak, who lives in Upstate New York, never thought that during those two weeks Emily, who has Down's syndrome, could be harming herself by frequently putting her tongue and hands on the deck. At a federal hearing this spring, Janak testified that Emily ingested and inhaled a high dose of arsenic during those weeks. Since then, she said, her daughter has suffered from neurological problems. The girl may have an increased lifetime risk of lung and bladder cancer, Janak said.

Back then, despite widespread media reports, Janak was unaware of concerns that arsenic, a known human carcinogen, can leach out of pressure-treated wood. She just thought that re-sanding the deck was more cost effective than buying a new one.

"When you find this out, it's like, how come I wasn't told? How come our children are at risk?" she said.

Since the 1940s, chromated copper arsenate (CCA) has been the most popular wood preservative, used in more than 90 percent of pressure-treated wood. It protects wood from rot, mold and pests.

In the past two years, however, CCA-treated wood, commonly referred to as pressure-treated wood, has come under increased attack by environmental advocacy groups that say it poses a danger to children.

The wood treatment industry voluntarily agreed to phase out its manufacture for residential use by Dec. 31, though retailers will still be allowed to sell remaining supplies.

And the Environmental Protection Agency, which will oversee the phaseout, is reassessing the risks, especially to children, who are more vulnerable to toxins than are adults. The EPA's findings are scheduled to be released later this year.

So far, the agency has not recommended that existing wooden structures be removed but requires warning labels on all CCA-treated lumber.

Some advocacy groups, led by the Environmental Working Group and the Healthy Buildings Network, are pressing for the government to ban CCA-treated wood playground equipment.

From their research, these two District-based groups conclude that population-wide the lifetime cancer risk to children is 1 in 500 from routine exposure (three times per week for an hour each session) to pressure-treated wood in playground equipment and decks. For heavily exposed children, the risk could be as high as 1 in 100.

"This wood presents a serious health risk to children in the majority of houses in the D.C. area," said Jane Houlihan, the Environmental Working Group's vice president for research.

The Wood Preservative Science Council, representing the industry, disagrees. The group said in a statement that there is "no evidence of an increased risk of lung or bladder cancer from exposure to treated wood." Further, the industry argues that people are at greater risk from arsenic in food and water than from exposure to pressure-treated wood.

The industry argues against tearing out decks or keeping children away from treated wood playground equipment. "Overweight children are a serious public health issue and the last thing we want as a society is to prevent them from playing outside on jungle gyms," said Barbara Beck, an industry consultant and a principal at Gradient Corp. in Cambridge, Mass.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission sponsored the March hearing where Janak and others testified. The commission's staff has released a report that found children could face an increased risk of lung or bladder cancer from such playground equipment, but also recommended that the commission defer any decision on a ban until the EPA releases its reassessment.

So far, the EPA has stopped short of saying that CCA-treated wood structures should be removed from homes or that the public is at risk. The agency began requiring consumer information labels on all CCA -treated lumber last year.

Home Depot, the largest wood buyer in the world, has red information tags prominently displayed next to the pressure-treated wood in its stores. The home improvement chain still sells that wood but also offers cedar, redwood, composite decking and plastic fencing as alternatives. Home Depot plans to replace CCA with alkaline copper quat, a wood preservative that does not contain arsenic, by the end of 2003, according to Goldie Taylor, the Atlanta-based chain's public relations manager. The use of the alternative preservative could cost 15 to 20 percent more than CCA pressure-treated wood.

Jody Clarke, a Burke mother who testified at the Consumer Product Safety Commission hearing, says she resents the impending higher cost of CCA alternatives. She worries more about her son falling off his bike and getting hurt than about possible health risks from exposure to pressure-treated wood.

"The real victims are going to be the families, or anyone, who pays more for decks made out of an alternative -- and inferior -- product," Clarke said Some experts think pressure-treated wood is neither superior nor cheaper than other products. It is a high-maintenance product because the wood contracts and expands with water and lasts about 10 years, compared with steel, which can last 15 years longer, said John Lombardi, president of All Recreation, the largest supplier of commercial playground equipment in Northern Virginia. The company makes picnic tables, receptacles and benches with recycled plastic and steel.

Experts advise consumers who own or use pressure-treated wood structures to take reasonable precautions.

Amy Konstant, a Chevy Chase mother who works at an environmental organization, bought a house in 1997 that has a wood deck. In 2000 she bought a pressure-treated wood swing set.

Last year she decided against planting a vegetable garden below the deck because of concerns that arsenic can leach down into the soil below the wood structure. She started to require her two young children to keep their hands out of their mouths when playing on the wood structures.

"We wash hands a lot in our house," she said.

 
   
   

 

 

 

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