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Study links cancer risk, pressure-treated playsets

A government commission finds increases in some types of cancer for children who play on the wood.

By JULIE HAUSERMAN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 8, 2003


TALLAHASSEE -- Children who play on pressure-treated wooden playsets face an increased risk of getting lung or bladder cancer later in life, the U.S. government said for the first time Friday.

The disclosure came from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, which routinely tests goods in the American marketplace, and often recalls defective products.

The commission didn't recommend schools, parks or parents tear out the wooden structures. It is waiting for more studies to see if sealing the wood with paints or stains might help reduce the amount of arsenic that rubs off.

"If parents want to do something right now, make the kids wash their hands, and don't let the kids eat on the wood, because we know that reduces risk," said spokesman Ken Giles.

Pressure-treated wood is infused with a pesticide called chromated copper arsenate, or CCA. Tests around the world show the wood, which has been in use since the 1940s, leaks arsenic.

Children play every day on wooden playgrounds around Florida, at public and private parks and schools, and in backyard playsets sold at stores.

After a yearlong study, scientists at the agency say children pick up arsenic on their hands when they play, and the arsenic can lead to cancer decades later, depending on how much time they spend playing on the wood.

Children get arsenic into their bodies when they touch the wood and then put their hands in their mouths. The study looked only at children's exposure on wooden playsets, not whether kids might also come in contact with decks, picnic tables, benches, fences or wooden walkways.

"We're not saying that every child who plays on CCA-treated wood is going to get cancer," Giles said. "What we have here is a federal government agency that has found a cancer risk."

The treated wood manufacturers, who have said pressure-treated lumber is a $4-billion annual industry, could not be reached for comment late Friday.

Two environmental groups asked the Consumer Product Safety Commission to ban the wood, prompting the study. Under an agreement reached last year with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the wood-treatment industry voluntarily agreed to pull it off the market for most residential uses by the end of this year.

The arsenic-treated wood will still be available for plywood, marine pilings, highway guardrails, bridges, structural timbers for houses, siding, shingles, utility poles and some agricultural products, including oyster farms.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission plans to take public testimony on the scientific findings of cancer risk on March 12 in Washington, D.C.

The government takes notice when a substance ranks as giving one person in 1-million an elevated risk of cancer. In the CCA study, government scientists estimated the risk at two in 1-million to as much as 100 in 1-million.

"The idea that up to 100 of every million children could get cancer from playing on these arsenic-treated playsets -- that's a pretty striking number," said Richard Wiles, senior vice president of the Environmental Working Group, which asked for the ban. "We also think the agency used a very low estimate of how much arsenic children get on their hands."

The controversy over treated wood heated up in March 2001 when the St. Petersburg Times published the results of soil tests the newspaper commissioned at five wooden playgrounds in the Tampa Bay area. All of the tests came back positive for arsenic, at levels higher than the state allows when polluters clean up neighborhoods. The commission did not study arsenic in soil.

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

The next battleground for the wood, one of the most popular building products in the United States, will be in the courtroom. Wood treaters and retailers like Lowe's and Home Depot face numerous lawsuits. One national class action lawsuit, brought by lawyers who sued the tobacco industry, would require the makers of the wood to tear it out of millions of homes and parks and replace it with something safer.

The Florida Legislature has been asked to pass laws to deal with the arsenic in treated wood, but the industry has successfully fought against new restrictions.

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