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The poison in your back yard

Arsenic is in the pressure-treated wood used to build decks, docks, gazebos and children's play sets. With evidence mounting that the poison can leak out, some people ask: Is it time to switch to a safer alternative?

By JULIE HAUSERMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 11, 2001


In bug-filled Florida, pressure-treated lumber has been a modern miracle. It stands up to termites, beetles and the rot that comes from relentless humidity. Every day, the lumber flies out of home-improvement stores to become boardwalks, backyard gazebos, picnic tables, decks, docks and playgrounds.

But now, it turns out, pressure-treated wood might be Florida's newest environmental hazard.

All over the state, pressure-treated boards and posts are leaking poisonous arsenic into the soil. The arsenic comes from chromated copper arsenate, or CCA, a powerful pesticide brew that is injected into the boards to give them long life against the elements.

Arsenic is leaking out of huge wooden playgrounds that volunteers built all over Tampa Bay. It's leaking beneath decks and state park boardwalks, at levels that are dozens of times -- even hundreds of times -- higher than the state considers safe. And discarded pressure-treated lumber is leaking arsenic out of unlined landfills, state experts say, posing a threat to drinking water.

If you've never heard of this before, you're not alone.

Most people who buy the popular wood don't have a clue that it contains toxic pesticides.

They don't know the wood has been banned in several countries. They don't know that some companies that sell the arsenic-filled wood in the United States make another kind of pressure-treated wood, one that doesn't have arsenic in it, and sell it overseas.

Americans haven't demanded a more environmentally friendly product because the bad news about pressure-treated wood isn't widely known here.

Most people don't know that they are supposed to wear gloves and a dust mask when working with the wood. They don't know they are supposed to clean up the arsenic-laced sawdust and wash their clothes and hands after building with it. They don't know that a burning pile of pressure-treated lumber gives off toxic smoke.

They don't know that people have won legal settlements with the wood-treatment industry because they were poisoned by arsenic. And that some communities have moved away from pressure-treated wood playgrounds after finding higher-than-normal levels of arsenic in the soil. Even Disney has stopped using CCA-treated wood at its Animal Kingdom, out of concern for the animals.

A pinch of pure arsenic can kill you. Long-term exposure to the poison can cause cancer. But how much threat does arsenic, slowly oozing out of posts and boards, pose to people? Unfortunately, there isn't a clear answer.

The industry says its studies show the wood is safe. Still, some wood-treaters predict that change is coming. Some companies are starting to make pressure-treated wood without arsenic. They expect that as people become more aware of the arsenic issue, environmental regulators and consumers will start demanding something safer.

* * *

In the 1990s, volunteers in communities all over the Tampa Bay area got together to build fantastic wooden playgrounds for kids. They created elaborate structures with spires, tunnels and secret hiding places, dreamscapes that the children helped design.

To raise money, the volunteers held chicken dinners. A group in Tampa held a "Pennies from Heaven" fundraiser and collected thousands of dollars worth of pennies, then spread them out to cover Jesuit High School's gymnasium floor.

The volunteers joined to hammer and saw and nail, like an old-fashioned barn raising. The kids, crawling through tunnels and clambering over wooden dragons, were thrilled.

Little did they know the pressure-treated wood they used to build these playgrounds is leaking arsenic, contaminating the soil of every one of their play yards.

The St. Petersburg Times hired Thorton Laboratories of Tampa to take a soil test near the sunken posts at five wooden playgrounds picked randomly around the Tampa Bay area: Tom Varn Park in Brooksville, Creative Community Playground in Crystal River, Sims Park in New Port Richey, Discovery Playground in Tarpon Springs and Al Lopez Park in Tampa. Each of the tests came back positive for arsenic at levels higher than the state considers safe.

On a crisp sunny Friday morning in Tarpon Springs, Vicki and Gerry Stancil bring their kids to Discovery Playground, a spectacular wooden playscape in a park shaded by oak trees. Allison, who is 3, and Andrew, who is 4, scamper through the tunnels and towers. The kids roll around on the ground, pick themselves up and they're off again.

The Times' test shows that this playground is leaching arsenic into the soil at nearly seven times the level the state considers safe for neighborhoods.

"They use poison? I didn't know that," Vicki Stancil said nervously. "I would never, ever, have considered that they put that in the wood."

The EPA banned most arsenic pesticides years ago -- except pressure-treated wood.

"I wouldn't make a picnic table out of it and eat on it, but if you use precautions and maintain it properly, you can come up with a safe playground," said Marc Leathers, whose firm, Leathers & Associates, helped build the playgrounds the Times tested. "There's hundreds of studies out there that tell you one thing or the other."

Most major home centers sell picnic tables made from CCA-treated wood, even though wood-treatment companies specifically say it never should be used for cutting boards or other food-preparation surfaces.

As for playgrounds, the health department in Connecticut was concerned enough to issue this warning three years ago:

"It is now clear that exposure from CCA-treated wood can be the major source of arsenic for children who frequently play on CCA-treated playscapes, tree houses, or decks.

"Arsenic is easily taken up onto hands from simple contact with the wood surface. Young children with frequent hand-to-mouth activity may swallow some of this arsenic . . . children should be prevented from playing underneath CCA-treated structures, including backyard playscapes, to minimize exposure to soil which may be contaminated with arsenic."

No barricades keep kids from playing under any of the playgrounds the Times tested. Even the sand boxes where the youngest children play are made out of CCA-treated lumber.

At Al Lopez Park, the city of Tampa tested and found arsenic, though at lower levels than the newspaper found. The Times' test showed the arsenic level near the playground is about 11 times greater than the state considers safe for neighborhoods.

Another way to put it: It's about three times more arsenic than the state allows in the cleanup at the Stauffer Chemical Superfund site in Tarpon Springs.

* * *

Switzerland, Vietnam and Indonesia have banned CCA-treated wood. Japan, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Australia and New Zealand have restricted or proposed restrictions for it.

The wood-treatment industry, which fought off efforts to ban CCA-treated lumber in Minnesota, says it poses little risk.

"Is it safe? The answer is: Yes, it is perfectly safe. We don't see a problem," said Scott Ramminger, president of the American Wood Preservers Institute.

Arsenic is a naturally occurring element that's in soil everywhere. Florida's safety level is among the most stringent in the country -- so stringent, Ramminger says, that arsenic levels considered unsafe here are considered normal background levels in soil elsewhere. He says kids crawling over play sets have a greater risk of getting skin cancer from the sun than from CCA-treated wood.

"Children are not spending 100 percent of their time under a post. They are running around the playground," Ramminger said. "You show me the research that says it's doing any harm -- there isn't any."

"CCA has been used for 70 years. It isn't this big "unknown,' " said Bob Gruber, a vice president of Arch Wood Treatment. "If you look at the studies that have been done and the amount of exposure you'd have to have, there's just no evidence" that it's harmful.

But in New Zealand, a brochure put out by Gruber's company boasts that wood treated with another compound, Copper Azole, "is a significant improvement over traditional CCA treatment, as it substantially reduces reliance on and exposure to the more toxic heavy metals such as chromium and arsenic. . . . It is environmentally responsible to specify or use Copper Azole treated lumber."

Another CCA manufacturer, Chemical Specialties in Charlotte, N.C., markets an arsenic-free wood:

"From the pristine environments of national parks in North America, Australia, Europe and Japan, to neighborhood playgrounds and back yards like yours, Preserve treated wood has been used around the globe to provide a durable building product for outdoor projects where environmental values and product safety are a priority."

* * *

Florida researchers have been testing for arsenic around treated wood decks all over the state -- and finding it.

"The data is compelling that arsenic is leaching out of the wood, and it's leaching out in concentrations much higher than we previously thought," said Bill Hinkley, who heads the solid and hazardous waste bureau at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

"The question is: How much of a problem is it? That's what we're struggling with. Are these playgrounds safe? I don't think we have good enough data to say," Hinkley said.

"This is a very toxic metal, and if there's an alternative that's less toxic, we should use it."

There is an alternative -- the wood treated without arsenic. But because it isn't widely available, it costs from 5 percent to 20 percent more. For some, that's a fair trade-off.

"We made a decision that if there was something else out there, we would prefer to use it for our community," said John Bowles, the manager of Orange Park in Clay County. "It came down to: Why deal with something that could be a potential problem if you can avoid it?"

In Miami, Dave Azadi runs a playground sales firm, Playkids. After learning of the arsenic leaching, Azadi switched to arsenic-free wood.

"The consumers took to the one with no arsenic," Azadi said. "I didn't want to have a product that somebody could come along later and ask: Why didn't you switch?"

But to ask for an alternative, people have to know the danger exists. That goes back to education, which was supposed to be the linchpin of the EPA's regulatory approach.

* * *

The EPA reviewed treated wood 19 years ago. As one of its options, the agency considered an outright ban but decided that "the economic impact which would result from across-the-board cancellation would be immense."

Instead, the EPA decided that a warning label was the answer: "The agency believes that the majority of the population exposed to or using pesticide-treated wood is not aware that the wood is treated by a pesticide," said a 1982 EPA study.

"Potential dermal exposure and inhalation exposure may occur to persons involved in handling and sawing pesticide-treated wood, contacting treated playground equipment or other treated structures with unprotected skin."

As for the health risk, the EPA said: "The potential of arsenic to cause delayed neurotoxic effects cannot be estimated for either adults or young children."

The industry balked at the EPA's proposed labeling requirement, offering instead to start a "Voluntary Consumer Awareness Program.'

The EPA signed off on the idea. The agency had gone from considering a ban on the wood, to deciding to require a warning label, to letting the industry police itself.

Today, you're supposed to get a fact sheet: "When working with treated wood, you should wear a dust mask, goggles and gloves. Collect the arsenic-laced sawdust and dispose of it. Work in a well-ventilated area. Wash clothes covered in sawdust separately. Burning CCA-wood can be life-threatening."

The industry's settlement letter with the EPA promised that consumer sheets would be handed out at lumber stores: "The sign or placard will be prominently displayed in the sales areas and will inform consumers of the availability of the consumer information sheets."

Today, there are no "prominently displayed" placards. Retailers rarely hand out the fact sheet.

Conversations with the people who played key roles in building the Tampa Bay area community playgrounds illustrate the failings of the Voluntary Consumer Awareness Program.

Roxann Mayros, who spearheaded the effort for the $70,000 wooden playground at Sims Park in New Port Richey, said she had no idea arsenic was in the wood.

"I'm appalled," she said. "We looked at every safety issue we could think to look at, and the wood treatment was not anything we thought to look at. We did not receive any warning at all -- not from Leathers (the design firm) and not from the firm we purchased the wood from."

Said Barry Segal, a Leathers & Associates employee: "There's no hidden thing here. On the materials sheet, it says right at the top of the list the type of lumber we use. We don't believe it's harmful."

Leathers & Associates now gives communities the option of choosing arsenic-free wood, Segal said, but most go with the less expensive CCA-wood.

Kitty Ebert coordinated 1,500 volunteers to build Creative Playground in Crystal River in 1995.

"I had no idea it had arsenic in it. You say to me it's pressure-treated and I don't know what pressure-treated means," Ebert said. "If they sell it at Scotty's and it doesn't say poison, I think it's okay."

* * *

Now, as regulators begin taking a closer look at CCA, some people in the wood-treatment industry say change is coming.

Jay Robbins of Robbins Manufacturing in Tampa has been in the treated wood business since the 1950s. He worries that wood will lose its market edge to plastic products if wood-treaters change to less toxic -- but more expensive -- chemicals.

"I think there's a lot of people watching the regulators," Robbins said. "This is coming to the end sooner or later. In the next five years, it will probably change. People will find alternative chemicals that will do the same thing. To the extent it's safer, people go for that."

Bill Eure of Quality Forest Products in North Carolina says that after 20 years of using CCA, his company will switch to arsenic-free treatment this year.

"We recognize it as a problem," Eure said. "It's going to be like Germany, where people don't use CCA anymore. They use products that are environmentally safer."

Chemical Specialties, also in North Carolina, is one of the leading CCA producers. Vice president Dave Fowlie says he has seen a shift by playground manufacturers toward the arsenic-free treatment his company also makes.

"Mainly because it puts their customers minds at ease," Fowlie said. "What we sell is what the market wants."

A big part of what the market wants is on home improvement store shelves.

Lowe's plans to switch to arsenic-free treated wood for its picnic tables, a company spokesman said. But for now, Lowe's sells CCA-wood picnic tables and its playscapes and treated lumber are CCA.

Home Depot is sticking with CCA.

"We haven't seen any evidence that there's abundant leaching -- any leaching that would prove to be hazardous to people or animals," said Ron Jarvis, a Home Depot global product manager. "If there's evidence that comes out that says arsenic is harmful to people and animals, we'd have to look at that."

* * *

The state's interest in arsenic contamination began a few years ago, in the flat, green fields of South Florida sugar country.

For years, the sugar companies burned cane husks in boilers to provide electricity for the sugar mills, then spread the boiler ash onto the fields.

When routine tests discovered arsenic in the fields in the mid-1990s, state regulators went hunting for the cause. They found it: The sugar companies had started burning waste wood, along with the cane husks, to fire the boilers. Much of the old wood was CCA lumber.

Research started in earnest. One study -- by Helena Solo-Gabriele of the University of Miami and Tim Townsend of the University of Florida -- has state regulators paying close attention.

They tested soil under eight pressure-treated decks around the state in 1999 and found arsenic in every case. Of 73 samples, 61 had higher arsenic levels than the state's safety limit for cleanup at industrial sites. One sample, taken under a deck tacked onto the back of a trailer in Miami, had nearly 300 times more arsenic than the state's safe limit.

"We have many sites in Florida that we're making people clean up that have lesser levels of contaminants," said Hinkley of the Florida DEP.

But change doesn't come easily. Consider the state of Florida.

The Department of Corrections and PRIDE, a private company that gives job-training to prisoners, run a wood treatment plant at Union Correctional Institution in Raiford. It ships CCA-treated wood all over Florida for highway guard rails, park pavilions and boardwalks.

In the early 1990s, arsenic contamination was discovered at the plant at levels 100 times more than state standards.

The state and PRIDE had to haul off a 2-foot layer of arsenic-laced soil that covered more than an acre; they still have to clean arsenic from the groundwater.

Last year, Hinkley asked the people who run the plant to abandon CCA and switch to more environmentally friendly chemicals. Though they were grappling with massive arsenic contamination on site, the plant operators refused to make the change. They worried that introducing an unfamiliar product would cost them their competitive edge.

DEP Secretary David Struhs said he plans to fight for money during this legislative session that would help the state's wood-treatment plant go arsenic-free. Then state agencies could start using arsenic-free wood, creating demand and, perhaps, bringing prices down.

Said Struhs: "It's the demand more than any regulation that's going to get (wood-treaters) to switch fast."

* * *

It's a balmy spring day, and the lumber section at a Home Depot in Tallahassee is bustling with people gearing up for back-yard projects. Lisa Cruse and her 11-year-old daughter, Jessica, are buying CCA-treated boards to build a grape arbor.

Cruse has no idea what "pressure-treated" means, except that it will last longer outdoors. The wood she's buying has a tiny tag, a little bigger than a pinkie finger, that says: "Top Choice Lumber Products. Water Repellent Treated Wood. Georgia Pacific Corporation." It doesn't mention chromium or copper or arsenic.

Told that the wood contains arsenic, Cruse wrinkles up her nose. She wants to know: Why doesn't the government make them tell people what's in the wood? "They are supposed to be protecting us, but they aren't."

The store doesn't sell arsenic-free treated wood, so Cruse buys what's there. She doesn't ask for the consumer information sheet, the one the wood treatment industry promised to distribute years ago.

It wouldn't have mattered: The store doesn't have the sheets. Instead, for anyone who knows enough to ask, the clerk offers a toll-free phone number to call to learn how to handle CCA wood.

In San Diego, a woman answers the phone. It's run by a hazardous waste disposal company that has a contract with Home Depot.

"Is this a medical emergency or chemical spill?" she asks.

No.

The caller is put on hold. A friendly voice intones: "Did you know that over 2,000 chemicals are considered hazardous?"

Dos and don'ts

Don't inhale sawdust from treated wood. Saw the wood outdoors. Wear a dust mask.

Don't use treated wood for cutting boards or counter tops.

Don't use treated wood to store food or animal feed.

Don't use treated wood for wood chips or mulch.

Don't burn treated wood; the smoke and ash are toxic.

Don't let treated wood come into contact with drinking water.

Don't grow edible plants near treated decks; put a plastic liner on the inside of CCA boards used to frame garden beds.

Wash exposed areas thoroughly after working with the wood -- and before eating, drinking or smoking.

If sawdust gets on your clothes, wash them separately from other laundry.

Keep children and pets out of under-deck areas.

Only treated wood that is visibly clean and free of surface residue should be used for patios, decks and walkways.

Some experts recommend that treated wood be coated with a sealant every two years, but how much that helps is debatable. A Consumer Product Safety Commission study found that sealants didn't keep the arsenic from leaching out.

-- Sources: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, American Wood Preservers Institute, Connecticut Department of Health

Alternative wood

Some Florida wood suppliers can provide treated wood that doesn't contain arsenic. The wood isn't carried in stores, but it can be special-ordered.

* * *

Decks and Docks Lumber Co.

St. Petersburg

(727) 399-9663

Ask for "Natural Select."

* * *

Builders FirstSource

Tampa

(813) 971-9633

Contractors only; ask for "Natural Select."

* * *

Deerfield Builders Supply

Deerfield Beach

(954) 427-1010

Ask for "Ultrawood."

* * *

West Orange Lumber Co.

Oakland

(407) 656-2113

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