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Arsenic victims 'never know what hit them'

By JULIE HAUSERMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 11, 2001


Rick Feutz, a former Teacher of the Year in Washington, started a routine backyard project one week back in the late 1980s. He decided to build a swimming raft for his kids off his lakefront property near Seattle.

Sawing and building, he felt like he was coming down with the flu. "By the end of eight days, I was completely numb from my neck down," said Feutz, who is 53 now.

Feutz was poisoned by the arsenic-treated wood. His brain damage and paralysis continues today. He filed a lawsuit against the industry, and the settlement is confidential.

He hopes that sharing his story will save others from a similar experience.

"I'm sure the stuff doesn't react with everybody like it did with me, or we'd hear more about it," said Feutz, adding that the wood he was using was wet from the chemical treatment.

"If I'd known it was arsenic, I wouldn't have used it. I'd tell people to use good precautions, wear a mask, wear gloves -- all the things I didn't do."

Jimmy Sipes wishes he wore gloves and a mask when he was building picnic tables for the U.S. Forest Service in Indiana.

"I thought it was treated with salt," said Sipes, a 57-year-old who was poisoned by arsenic in 1983. "They told us we didn't have to wear anything."

In a horrible vomiting episode, Sipes lost half the blood in his body. A doctor concluded he had a rare disease. After convalescing for a year, Sipes went back to work. The vomiting returned.

"I asked my wife: Find out what's in the wood," Sipes said. "Ninety-nine percent of people don't know what's in the wood. They say it's not harmful, but we know it is."

Laurie Walker was helping her husband unload CCA-treated fence posts from a pickup truck when she got a splinter, which caused festering unlike any she'd seen.

"I had a couple of fingers amputated because of it," said Walker, who is 43 and lives outside Salt Lake City. "The doctor wanted to find out what was in the wood. I had no idea. It was the first time we'd used it. If I knew it was in there, I wouldn't have bought the wood."

"How many other people are like that? They never know what hit them," said David McRea, an Indiana lawyer who represented Sipes, who settled for $667,000, and Walker, whose case hasn't been resolved. "Carpenters don't know what's in the wood -- carpenters!"

Proving that the wood harmed someone is difficult. "Let's say you have children exposed to a carcinogen and 30 years down the road they get cancer. Your chances of proving that are zero," McRea said.

"I have to ask: Why are they building playgrounds out of treated wood? Why?

"The (wood treatment industry) said: "Well, it's fixed in the wood. It's toxic to bugs but it's safe for humans.' They said there's no proof that anybody's been injured. And it's just not true."

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