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Bush wants state to stop using arsenic in wood

Reports of arsenic leaching out of treated lumber close playground.

By JULIE HAUSERMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 14, 2001


TALLAHASSEE -- In the wake of reports that arsenic is leaching out of pressure-treated lumber across Florida, Gov. Jeb Bush on Tuesday said he wants the state's own wood-treatment plant to stop using arsenic as a preservative.

"We're going to switch" to wood preservatives that don't contain arsenic, Bush said.

The state makes its own pressure-treated lumber at a plant in Raiford. State agencies use it for park boardwalks, highway guardrails and other outdoor structures.

Also Tuesday, responding to a special report on pressure-treated lumber in Sunday's St. Petersburg Times, Tarpon Springs temporarily closed its popular Discovery Playground, which was built by community volunteers in 1997.

Tests by a laboratory hired by the Times turned up arsenic in the soil near five wooden community playgrounds. All of the tests showed arsenic at levels above the state's safety limit, prompting a flood of calls from worried parents to local officials all over Tampa Bay.

At Tarpon Springs' Discovery Playground, the Times test found the arsenic level in the soil near a playground post was more than five times the state's safety limit. The city may reopen the playground, or build a new one, after officials gather more information.

In Citrus County, meanwhile, Crystal River's insurer may also do its own tests of that city's Creative Community Playground. The Times soil test there found arsenic at four times the state's safety limit.

In Miami, a team of lawyers -- most of them out-of-state -- has filed a federal class-action lawsuit against the wood treatment industry, Home Depot and Lowe's. The lawsuit alleges that people have been poisoned by arsenic in the wood, and that the industry showed a "negligent, reckless, and/or intentional disregard of the harmful effects of the chemicals used in the treatment process."

The wood-treatment industry says its own studies show the wood is safe. They say arsenic does leach out, but doesn't pose a risk to children or adults. Several people have won settlements from the industry for injuries they say came from arsenic in the wood, including an Indiana man who vomited up half his body's blood after building picnic tables for the U.S. Forest Service.

Almost all the pressure-treated wood available in Florida is injected with a pesticide called Chromated Copper Arsenate, or CCA.

It's the arsenic that worries state officials. At low levels, arsenic can be poisonous. Long-term exposure can cause cancer. But state officials can't say how much risk arsenic, leaking out of the wood in small quantities, poses to people.

Several countries have banned the wood. And the same companies that sell CCA-wood in the United States also sell the arsenic-free wood overseas.

One Florida study has the state's attention. In 1999, researchers at the University of Miami and the University of Florida found that arsenic is leaching out of pressure-treated decks and boardwalks all over the state, in some cases at levels far higher than the state allows at industrial cleanup sites. One sample, taken under a deck onto the back of a trailer in Miami, had nearly 300 times more arsenic than the state's safe limit.

For environmental regulators, it was a surprise.

Gov. Bush said if there's a safer way to treat wood at the state-run plant, Florida should use it. Bush's pronouncement could create a new market for arsenic-free treated wood, which is rarely used here.

"Our hope is that state agencies will follow the governor's lead and soley specify the new, environmentally friendly wood," said Pat Foote, a spokesman for PRIDE, a private company that runs the wood-treatment plant with the state. "We go by what customers ask for, and our only customers are state agencies."

Bush's top environmental official, Department of Environmental Protection Secretary David Struhs, is asking the Legislature to put $500,000 in this year's budget so that the plant can switch to arsenic-free treatment. Struhs hopes the state can stimulate demand for wood that's treated with more benign chemicals.

The money will also help pay to clean up massive arsenic contamination at the plant, which is run by the Department of Corrections and PRIDE, the private company that gives job-training to prisoners. In the early 1990s, arsenic contamination was discovered near 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.

As news spreads about arsenic leaching from the ordinary pressure-treated lumber that's in decks, playgrounds and gazebos, people are struggling over how to handle the growing concern.

Tarpon Springs tacked a letter on the closed playground gate, saying ". . . many questions remain that even experts from the state of Florida DEP cannot answer at this time."

The playground may never reopen if it is found to be too hazardous, said Paul Smith, the city's public services administrator. He said the city might have to rebuild the playground, using safer materials.

Tarpon Springs City Commissioner Beverley Billiris said she was startled to learn that arsenic could leak out of the wood and into the soil.

"I want to investigate and guarantee the safety of our children," she said.

The Times tests -- performed by Thornton Laboratories in Tampa -- also found arsenic at levels above the state's safety limit at wooden playgrounds at Tom Varn Park in Brooksville, Sims Park in New Port Richey and Al Lopez Park in Tampa.

The Times has also been flooded with calls from homeowners who want to find out how they can get their back yards tested. The best bet is to call an environmental laboratory out of the phone book, as the Times did for its investigation.

Some lumber companies can special-order pressure-treated lumber that doesn't contain arsenic. The arsenic-free treatment that's most widely available goes by the name "ACQ."

- Times staff writers Katherine Gazella and Alex Leary contributed to this report.

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