14 June 2003
Wood Is Under Fire
Rebecca R. Kahlenberg
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.
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
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.
you find this out, it's like, how come I wasn't told? How come our
children are at risk?" she said.
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.
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.
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.
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.
far, the agency has not recommended that existing wooden structures
be removed but requires warning labels on all CCA-treated lumber.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
advise consumers who own or use pressure-treated wood structures
to take reasonable precautions.
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.
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
wash hands a lot in our house," she said.