Panel downplays arsenic-treated wood
By JULIE HAUSERMAN, Times Staff Writer
TALLAHASSEE -- A panel of six Florida doctors, handpicked by the state Health Department, says parents shouldn't worry about arsenic-treated wood at playgrounds.
The conclusion, reached in June without fanfare by the department, contradicts an expert for the Department of Environmental Protection, who said last year that arsenic-treated wood poses an unreasonable health risk to children.
The wood will be pulled from the marketplace by the end of 2003, but only for uses in which it comes into contact with people. To protect it from bugs and rot, the wood is infused with a pesticide called chromated copper arsenate, or CCA, which leaks arsenic into playground dirt. Arsenic also wipes off on people's hands when they touch the wood.
Hundreds of wooden play sets with arsenic-treated wood are still in use at schools, public parks and back yards.
The panel of doctors says they pose little risk.
"These products do not represent a real risk to citizens," said Dr. James V. Hillman, a medical toxicologist from Tampa who served on the panel. "There's certainly no pattern of disease that can be linked to this material."
The Health Department received the panel's findings in June but didn't publicly release the report. The American Wood Preservers Institute, the wood treatment industry's trade group, distributed the findings this week.
"Treated wood has been used safely for nearly 70 years," said Parker Brugge, institute president. "Based on this report, parents can be assured that children can safely play on recreational equipment made of preserved wood."
The panel, convened by the Health Department last year, did not test wood, soil or children. Instead, it reviewed dozens of studies and found no documented cases of children getting sick from arsenic-treated wood. The Health Department has not taken a position on the issue, said spokesman Bill Parizek.
The Department of Environmental Protection is trying to encourage people to use arsenic-free wood. The DEP has switched to arsenic-free wood in state parks.
"The science is uncertain, and there can be conflicting opinions. We're using an abundance of caution," said DEP spokesman Bob Sparks.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is still reviewing the wood, a spokesman said.
"We supported the voluntary phaseout because reducing arsenic exposure is going to be a good thing," EPA spokesman Dave Deegan said. "But we don't have the scientific conclusions to bolster or rebut any other given argument that's out there."
The wood treatment industry is eager for good news about its product because the EPA is doing a national study to assess what risks children face from the wood. The Consumer Product Safety Commission also is expected to weigh in soon. Two national class-action lawsuits are pending against the industry. Some people have won settlements from the industry after being poisoned by the wood.
The physicians on the Health Department panel said communities shouldn't bother testing playgrounds or back yards to see whether arsenic is leaking from the wood.
"The levels of arsenic in or around CCA-treated wood in playgrounds and recreational facilities does not appear to be sufficient to adversely affect the health of children or adults," the panel wrote.
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, wants a complete ban of all arsenic-treated wood. The voluntary ban still allows the wood in some uses, such as marine pilings, highway guardrails and plywood. Nelson got Congress to pass a law to speed up the EPA's study, but he said the agency still is dragging its feet.
"If there is a question of risk, then you don't take a chance when you are dealing with children's lives and children's health," Nelson said.
The Florida physicians are likely to be dragged into court battles over the wood. Richard Wiles of the Environmental Working Group in Washington argued that the Florida panel didn't find any diseases caused by treated wood because no one has studied it yet.
"No one's tracked kids who played on this stuff 20 years later," Wiles said.
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From the Times state desk
From the state wire