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Lumber companies agree to arsenic ban

One lawmaker says consumers still don't have enough guidance, while some in the treated-wood industry grumble that the ban is not needed.

By JULIE HAUSERMAN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 13, 2002


One lawmaker says consumers still don't have enough guidance, while some in the treated-wood industry grumble that the ban is not needed.

American manufacturers will stop using arsenic-treated wood for decks and playgrounds by the end of next year, under an agreement announced Tuesday by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

But the EPA also downplayed the risk, saying it's not necessary for consumers to tear down decks and playgrounds.

The agency plans more study, and in the meantime it recommends that children who play on decks, porches, docks and wooden play sets wash their hands before eating or using the bathroom. People who saw, sand or cut pressure-treated lumber should wash their work clothes separately from their regular laundry, the EPA recommended.

Tests across the country show that the wood leaks arsenic, which can cause cancer and other health problems. Environmentalists who have studied the issue say consumers should replace arsenic-treated wood if possible, or seal it with an oil-based stain every year. Sanding the wood can release more arsenic, experts said Tuesday.

The announced phaseout comes after a series of closed-door negotiations with the EPA in recent weeks.

Florida Sen. Bill Nelson blasted the agreement, saying he's angry that the EPA still hasn't given communities any guidance about what to do about arsenic-treated wood in schools and public parks.

"This agreement is a way to protect the industry. It doesn't do anything to protect consumers," Nelson said. "What I'd like to see is for them to give us a risk assessment so that all these local governments could decide whether to close these playgrounds or open them up."

Nelson also said he plans to file a bill in Congress this week calling for tougher deadlines.

The wood, preserved with a powerful pesticide called chromated copper arsenate, or CCA, has been in use since the 1940s. The ban will apply only to selected uses of CCA, mostly where people could come in contact with arsenic when it leaks out of the wood.

Arsenic-treated wood still will be allowed in plywood, marine pilings, highway guardrails, bridges, structural timbers for houses, siding, shingles, utility poles and some agricultural projects, including oyster farms.

But by this time next year, consumers and contractors looking for a long-lasting wood to build a deck or backyard play set will find a new kind of pressure-treated wood, one that doesn't contain arsenic. The companies that make arsenic-treated wood in the United States already produce an arsenic-free treated wood and sell it overseas in countries that have banned or restricted CCA.

At least in the short term, the arsenic-free treated wood will probably cost 10 to 20 percent more. CCA manufacturers rely on cheap arsenic, mostly from China. The price will go up as manufacturing plants switch to arsenic-free treatment. Spokespeople for Lowe's and Home Depot said Tuesday they plan to start stocking the arsenic-free wood as soon as manufacturers can provide it.

Already, treated-wood manufacturers are seeing competition from new materials, including plastic decking and composite materials that combine wood particles with cement.

In Washington on Tuesday, the industry's trade group pledged complete cooperation with EPA. But at a conference of wood-treaters in Kissimmee this week, many speakers blamed "media attacks" for the increased government scrutiny of their most popular -- and lucrative -- product.

A slide during the conference's opening presentation showed children playing on a wooden playground, with a quote from Yogi Berra above: "The future is not what it used to be," it said.

The $4-billion-a-year treated-wood industry has already started turning away from CCA, which has spurred lawsuits, a flurry of negative studies and bad publicity. Many treatment plants have switched to the alternative chemicals, which are a mixture of copper and ammonia compounds. Some also include boron. The new treatments tend to leak copper, which is considered a threat to the environment (especially marine creatures), but not human health.

"CCA has been available, it's easy to use, and it's relatively inexpensive," Robert Smith, an associate forestry professor at Virginia Tech, told conferees. "What's changing? We're seeing increased public concern about the environment."

The industry plans to reposition treated wood as an environmentally friendly product, saying it saves forests and requires less energy to produce than steel.

"I think the future of whatever chemical we use -- we're going to have to look at it not coming out of the wood," Smith said.

Most speakers scoffed at the idea that CCA poses any health risk, even though some scientists say children can increase cancer risk just by touching the wood during routine childhood play.

Bill Tucker, president of the Florida Building Materials Association, told conference-goers that once Lowe's and Home Depot decide to switch to arsenic-free treatment, the market will follow.

"This is going to be driven by the consumer," Tucker said during his presentation. "If the consumer decides, "This is going to kill my children or hurt my family or the dog's going to die,' then that's going to drive the market toward alternatives."

The controversy over arsenic-treated lumber heated up last March, when the St. Petersburg Times published the results of soil tests that the newspaper commissioned at five wooden playgrounds in the Tampa Bay area. All of playground dirt tests came back positive for arsenic, at levels higher than the state allows when polluters clean up neighborhoods.

Steve Johnson, a top pesticide official at the EPA who helped negotiate the CCA phaseout, said Tuesday EPA intends to keep studying arsenic-treated wood.

"This is very difficult," Johnson said. "There is a paucity of information, and the information is conflicting. There are many complex questions. Some have suggested the (arsenic) leaching out of a telephone pole is different from the leaching out of a picnic table or a deck. There are no textbook answers to those kinds of questions."

One main concern for Florida: What to do with all the old treated wood that leaks arsenic in unlined landfills. The wood has enough toxic chemicals in to to rank as a hazardous waste, but the industry won a special exemption when Ronald Reagan was president. Without that exemption, the wood would have to go into a lined landfill to protect groundwater. Instead, much of the old treated wood is chopped up into mulch. Consumers buying "recycled" wood mulch have been unknowingly spreading arsenic-laced wood in their gardens.

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