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Arsenic levels surprise many

Crystal River says CCA-treated wood in its playground and other structures may need testing.

By ALEX LEARY

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 13, 2001


A Times
special report

The poison in your back yard
Arsenic is in the pressure-treated wood used to build decks, docks, gazebos and children's play sets.

Arsenic victims ‘never know what hit them’

Arsenic fears rise over treated wood disposal

CRYSTAL RIVER -- Five-year-old Seneka Jones had a puzzled look on her face. She and her brothers had just arrived at the sprawling playground behind City Hall, and their mother was telling them they had to leave.

"Why do we have to go?" Seneka asked, her small hands hanging to a swing Monday afternoon.

"The playground is poisonous," her mother replied hastily. "We'll go home and swim in the pool."

Moments earlier, Daphne Jones, 30, had learned that the wooden playground, one of the biggest and best in Citrus County, is leaching arsenic into the soil at nearly four times the state's safety limit.

The findings, which took nearly everyone here by surprise, were reported in an article published in the St. Petersburg Times on Sunday.

The newspaper hired Thornton Laboratories of Tampa to test soil at five randomly picked wooden playgrounds. Each test revealed arsenic at levels higher than the state considers safe.

Arsenic, which can cause cancer with prolonged exposure, is found in the pesticide used to treat wood, chromated copper arsenate. CCA is injected into boards to protect them against insects and humidity.

For this reason, pressure-treated wood is ubiquitous in Florida. As it is elsewhere, the wood has been used by the city not only for its playground but for picnic tables, decks and gazebos.

Some health officials say CCA-treated lumber can pose a risk to Seneka Jones and the scores of other children who run, climb and swing from playgrounds. They can come in contact with the arsenic either from touching the wood or playing in the dirt below.

"The question is: How much of a problem is it?" Bill Hinkley, who heads the solid and hazardous waste bureau at the state Department of Environmental Protection, told the Times.

"That's what we're struggling with. Are these playgrounds safe? I don't think we have good enough data to say." He added: "This is a very toxic metal, and if there's an alternative that's less toxic, we should use it."

Lumber companies, which market treated wood that does not contain arsenic and sell it in countries that have banned that treatment, dispute the findings and say there is little reason for alarm.

"If we thought there was a real concern with what we know presently, then we would be doing something about it," Barry Segal, an official at Leathers & Associates, the Ithaca, N.Y., company that oversaw the construction of Crystal River's playground, said Monday.

"Even though I realize children may be more susceptible, we still haven't found it to be a concern," Segal said.

His company says it is concerned about treated wood that is discarded in landfills, where the arsenic can reach groundwater sources.

Crystal River's park, which is named Creative Community Playground, was built in late 1995. It was a major success for the city, the culmination of many hours of volunteer work and fundraising.

"I'm concerned if there is danger about it," said Kitty Ebert, a former City Council member who helped organize the 1,500 people who worked on the project. "I think it's pretty irresponsible of Leathers if they knew there was cause for alarm."

John Lettow, assistant public works director for the city, did not recall receiving any warning about arsenic. "That was probably the last thing on my mind." He said he, too, is concerned "just like the next parent," but said the city would not rush to judgment.

He provided the city's insurer with a copy of the Times article. The company, Public Risk Management of Fort Myers, is looking into the problem and may commission its own soil test, Lettow said.

For now, some parents say they will take no chances until learning more about the playground. "Until I find out something has been done to correct the problem, we won't be back," Jones said.

Yvonne and David Teague, who are visiting the area from Wilmington, N.C., also brought their three children to Crystal River on Monday. As her husband played with the kids on some tires, Mrs. Teague held a small video recorder.

"I knew they used arsenic in treated wood, but I didn't know it was used in playgrounds," David Teague said. He paused a minute and wondered aloud what the danger would be.

"I'm sorry, we're leaving," his wife said. "That really brought the day down." The family decided to head to the beach instead.

A short time later, Angie Royalty showed up with her two girls, 4-year-old Leah and 2-year-old Lydia. Royalty said the arsenic was "kind of scary" but did not rush to end her daughters' fun.

"If I was here for hours and hours, maybe I'd be concerned," she said.

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