© St. Petersburg Times, published August 29, 2002
TALLAHASSEE -- Sampling at wooden decks, picnic tables and playgrounds in Florida and 40 other states shows that pressure-treated wood leaks high levels of arsenic, no matter how old the deck is, a national environmental group's report says.
Sealing the wood keeps the arsenic from leaking for only about six months, says the Environmental Working Group, which had a university laboratory analyze some 300 samples from soil and from the wood's surface.
In about two of every five back yards and parks, the soil had enough arsenic to rank as a Superfund hazardous waste site, the group found.
"We were actually pretty shocked," said Richard Maas, co-director of the University of North Carolina's Environmental Quality Institute Research Lab, which analyzed the samples sent in by homeowners around the nation. "The numbers we are getting are just astronomical."
The arsenic comes from chromated copper arsenate, or CCA, a pesticide that's infused into the wood to resist bugs and rot. Arsenic can cause cancer and other health problems.
"The levels are high even in 15-year-old decks," Maas said. "We're disappointed that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency isn't making stronger statements about the amount of arsenic leaking out of the decks that are out there."
EPA spokesman Dave Deegan said the agency couldn't comment because it hadn't yet seen the report. The EPA is doing a national study on what risk the wood may pose to children.
"At this point we haven't reached any conclusion that existing (CCA) structures are posing a risk to people," Deegan said. "Until we have a risk assessment, we don't have any conclusions for people."
Under pressure from the EPA, the makers of the CCA wood announced in February that they will voluntarily pull the wood from the U.S. market by the end of 2003 for most uses in which it comes into contact with people. But the EPA advised homeowners not to tear down their decks, and seal the wood only once a year or once every other year.
The Environmental Working Group says its testing shows that sealers work for only six months. The highest arsenic level the group measured came from a deck in Houston that was sealed two years before.
"If people can afford it, they should replace their decks right away," Maas said.
Parker Brugge, president of the American Wood Preservers Institute, a trade group, said CCA wood is safe.
For homeowners and park managers, the last year has been a frustrating series of contradictory advice. Some playgrounds closed after arsenic turned up in the soil. Some reopened, even though the arsenic was still there. The state parks department announced it will no longer use CCA wood in parks.
Then, there were dueling scientists: A toxicologist hired by one agency, the state Department of Environmental Protection, reviewed studies and said kids can get enough arsenic on their hands by touching the wood during routine play to pose an unreasonable health risk.
But a group of six Florida doctors, hand-picked by another agency, the state Department of Health, said parents shouldn't worry about arsenic-treated wood at playgrounds. The doctors said they could find no documented cases of children getting sick from the wood.
Environmentalists said the doctors couldn't find any evidence because the studies haven't been done yet. Until recently, they said, few people knew that arsenic leaks out of the wood and wipes off on people's hands.
The poison in your back yard