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Ban sought on arsenic-treated wood in state's playgrounds

A lawmaker says he will offer a bill in the House to keep arsenic-treated wood out of playgrounds.

By JULIE HAUSERMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 28, 2001


A lawmaker says he will offer a bill in the House to keep arsenic-treated wood out of playgrounds.

TALLAHASSEE -- A Tampa Bay lawmaker said Tuesday he will push for a ban on pressure-treated lumber in Florida's public playgrounds, following news that the wood is leaking arsenic into playground dirt. It marks the first time the Florida Legislature has addressed the issue of the widely used wood, which is injected with a pesticide called chromated copper arsenate, or CCA, to make it last longer.

Arsenic, which can cause cancer and other health problems, is leaking out of pressure-treated decks and boardwalks all over Florida. Independent tests commissioned by The St. Petersburg Times found arsenic near the posts at five area playgrounds, all of them at levels higher than the state's safety limit.

"We need to look into this," said state Rep. Larry Crow, a Palm Harbor Republican. "There are some very valid questions that are being asked, and the children should be protected at all costs. I think we would be remiss if we didn't study this. If we're going to talk about an outright ban, we'll look into it."

Wood treated with CCA has been banned in several countries. Minnesota tried to ban it, but the proposal failed. California passed laws that require the wood to be labeled as a toxic product, and that treated-wood playground equipment be sealed every two years.

Crow says he plans to introduce a measure this week or next through the House committee he chairs, called Judicial Oversight. With an already crowded agenda before the session adjourns on May 4, it's unclear how far Crow's proposal will get.

With worry spreading about the wood, the American Wood Preservers Institute, a trade group, placed full-page advertisements in the Times and other Florida newspapers, featuring children playing on a wooden playground set, with text that said the wood is safe.

After the Times published its test results March 11, officials closed the playground at Al Lopez Park in Tampa and Discovery Playground in Tarpon Springs. Playgrounds also were closed elsewhere in the state, including Gainesville and Miami.

The Tampa Parks Department has reopened the Al Lopez Park playground. The department did its own testing, and found one sample with arsenic about 17 times higher than the state's safety limit. That's higher than the Times test, which found the arsenic level was about 11 times above Florida's safety limit.

The city of Tarpon Springs also did its own tests, and found higher levels than the Times did. That playground remains closed.

Tampa Parks Director Ross Ferlita says he thinks the Al Lopez playground is safe.

"We feel like there's no immediate danger," he said. Ferlita said children would have to ingest large amounts of tainted soil over the course of years for the arsenic to hurt them.

Meanwhile, Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary David Struhs has put a temporary moratorium on using CCA-treated lumber in state parks "until such time as all of the facts are known."

Scientists debate how much arsenic is dangerous. A fight over the allowable amount of arsenic in drinking water has been raging for more than 20 years in the U.S., with some scientists arguing for one level and others arguing for a level five times higher. President Bush has opted for the higher level, although a respected scientific panel found that even the lower level would lead to more cancer cases.

In Florida, the wood-treatment industry hired Florida State University toxicologist Christopher Teaf, who concluded that the arsenic leaking out of the wood poses little health risk.

In Miami, a federal class-action suit has been filed against the wood-treatment industry, Lowe's, and The Home Depot, alleging that the industry misled the public about the wood's toxic properties. Some people have won legal settlements from the wood-treatment industry after they were poisoned by arsenic while working with pressure-treated lumber. Gov. Jeb Bush also is seeking $500,000 from the state Legislature to get a wood treatment plant the state runs in Raiford to switch to arsenic-free treatment.

Arsenic-free pressure treated lumber isn't yet widely available, and state officials hope to create a market for the safer wood.

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