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European Union considers ban on arsenic-treated wood

By JULIE HAUSERMAN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 3, 2002

The European Union is considering banning arsenic-treated wood in its 15 member countries after concluding that "the risks to human health might be greater than previously thought."

Top European health, environment and consumer officials are recommending the ban, but the 15 countries have not yet voted. If the proposal passes, arsenic-treated wood could be used in Europe only for railroad ties, electric cooling towers and utility poles. It could not be sold to the public.

The threat of a European ban comes at a time when wood-treatment companies in America are in closed-door negotiations with the Environmental Protection Agency to phase out the wood. The companies would still make pressure-treated lumber, but they would treat it with safer chemicals. The American companies already sell arsenic-free treated wood overseas.

In a new report, scientists advising the European Union said arsenic-treated wood poses a "number of risks considered unacceptable, including to children's health." The appointed scientific committee also warned that children could face a cancer risk from arsenic that's in sandboxes built with the wood. The science committee concluded that the wood can "significantly" increase lung cancer risks if it is burned.

The science committee said the wood also poses a threat to the environment, because the arsenic leaks out in landfills, soil and water. The copper in the wood can leak out and harm marine life.

Most pressure-treated lumber is infused with a pesticide called chromated copper arsenate, or CCA. The arsenic leaks out of the wood into back yards and playgrounds, and can rub off onto clothing and skin. Arsenic causes cancer and other health problems, but scientists disagree about how much risk arsenic-treated wood poses.

Some countries have restrictions on CCA wood. Japan, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Australia and New Zealand have either restricted the wood or proposed restrictions.

If passed, the ban would apply in Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Greece, Austria, The United Kingdom, Ireland, Finland, Sweden, Denmark and The Netherlands.

The European Commission, which sets policy for the full European Union, is accepting public comment on the proposed ban through Friday. The proposal is bound to be controversial. Before imposing a ban, the European Union also would have to conduct studies to determine what economic impact it would have. Some 700 wood-treatment companies use CCA in Europe, according to the European Commission report.

Mel Pine, spokesman for the American Wood Preservers Institute in Washington, said his trade group hasn't taken a position on the proposed ban, but added: "Certainly we don't think the science warrants it."

"Europe is not an enormous market for treated wood," Pine said. "It's not as large a market as the United States."

In the United States, treated wood is a $4-billion industry. Bug-filled Florida is the top market.

-- Times researcher Stephanie Scruggs contributed to this report.

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