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Woodmakers talk of ending use of arsenic

The poisonous pesticide can leach into back yards and playgrounds, with uncertain effects on children.

By JULIE HAUSERMAN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 23, 2002

The poisonous pesticide can leach into back yards and playgrounds, with uncertain effects on children.

TALLAHASSEE -- The makers of arsenic-treated lumber, one of the most popular building materials in America, have been meeting privately with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to discuss phasing out their controversial product.

"It is our understanding that the industry is proposing to voluntarily stop using the arsenic treating process, but at this point we don't know details," said Dan McLaughlin, spokesman for Sen. Bill Nelson. "We've been told the industry is offering to go to an alternative process."

Spokesmen for the EPA and for wood manufacturers confirmed Tuesday that talks are going on, but would not discuss specifics.

The wood-treaters now use a pesticide called chromated copper arsenate, or CCA. Arsenic, a poison that can cause cancer, is leaking from the wood into back yards and playground soils. Safer chemical compounds -- ones that don't contain arsenic -- can protect the wood from bugs and weather.

A nationwide phaseout would be significant. Pressure-treated lumber is a $4-billion annual industry in the United States, and bug-filled Florida is the nation's biggest market.

Nelson, a Florida Democrat, has been pushing the EPA to tell people whether arsenic-treated lumber is safe. Some wooden playgrounds in Florida were shut down during the past year, when tests done for the St. Petersburg Times revealed that arsenic is leaking into playground soil. Children also can get arsenic on their hands by touching the wood. There is little scientific consensus, however, on how much risk the arsenic poses to children.

Also on Tuesday, one of the nation's leading wooden playground design firms, Leathers & Associates, said it will no longer build playgrounds from arsenic-treated wood. Instead, the firm will use wood infused with either a boron compound or a compound called ACQ.

Leathers & Associates has helped volunteers build some 1,600 playgrounds around the United States, including at least five in west-central Florida. In March, the Times commissioned soil tests at all five playgrounds and found arsenic at levels higher than the state allows when it requires polluters to clean up neighborhoods.

The fanciful Leathers playgrounds are designed by children and built by thousands of community volunteers. Leathers & Associates builds about 70 to 80 playgrounds around the country each year. Since 1971, it has built 70 in Florida, including Al Lopez Park in Tampa, Tom Varn Park in Brooksville, Creative Community Playground in Crystal River, Sims Park in New Port Richey and Discovery Playground in Tarpon Springs.

Crews are now removing arsenic-laced soil from Lopez Park. Discovery Playground remains closed while local officials await guidance from the EPA.

Congress has given the EPA a Feb. 15 deadline to produce a report on arsenic-treated wood. But in the meantime, consumer pressure and pending lawsuits are having an impact. After being sued by a California public-interest law firm called the Center for Environmental Health, five national playground manufacturers have agreed to switch to arsenic-free wood.

Leathers & Associates wasn't facing any lawsuits, said president Marc Leathers. In fact, the company has insisted that arsenic-treated lumber is safe, even after tests revealed elevated levels of arsenic in the five west-central Florida playgrounds.

Tuesday, he said the company's switch "is driven by a demand from the public."

"Instead of waiting for the EPA, we looked at all the information and we think it's a better alternative for our clients. They won't have all this controversy," Leathers said.

The EPA isn't the only entity taking a look at arsenic-treated lumber. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission is reviewing a petition from environmentalists to ban the wood. In Florida, the state parks are now using arsenic-free wood on all new projects.

Nationally, a class-action lawsuit accuses Lowe's, Home Depot and the wood-treatment industry of negligence for failing to let people know that the wood contains a pesticide that leaks out. Some people have settled or filed lawsuits alleging that they were poisoned when working with the wood.

Another concern: Pressure-treated lumber has enough toxic chemicals in it to rank as a hazardous waste. But the industry got a special exemption when Ronald Reagan was president. Now, Florida officials are worried that old wood, discarded in unlined dumps, might leak arsenic into groundwater.

Florida officials have asked the EPA to reconsider that exemption from hazardous waste rules. At the EPA, a top official confirmed Tuesday that talks are ongoing between the agency and the wood-treatment industry. But he would not say whether the wood-treaters have proposed a phaseout.

"I'll definitely confirm that we're having discussions with the manufacturers of CCA in relation to their (pesticide) license," said Jim Jones, deputy director of the EPA's Office of Pesticide Programs.

A spokesman for the wood-treatment industry also confirmed Tuesday that some of the country's top wood-treatment companies have been meeting with the EPA.

"There have been discussions," said Mel Pine, spokesman for the American Wood Preservers Institute. "As far as a phaseout goes, if there were any talk like that going on, I certainly wouldn't be confirming or denying it until the time came that there was something to announce."

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