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DEP backs off defense of arsenic in wood


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 29, 2001

TALLAHASSEE -- A few days ago, the spokeswoman for the state's environmental agency tried to reassure Floridians worried about the arsenic leaking out of pressure-treated wood.

Now the agency is backing away and admitting that it doesn't know what to tell the public.

Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman Lucia Ross defended wood that's pressure-treated with chromated copper arsenate, or CCA, in a story in the Tallahassee Democrat.

"You could eat on a picnic table made of this wood every day for the rest of your natural life and there would be no significant effect to your health," Ross told the newspaper for a story published Tuesday.

On Wednesday, DEP Secretary David Struhs and Ross admitted they had no proof that what she said is true.

"I don't have any scientific basis for what I said," said Ross, who worked as a spokeswoman for Gov. Jeb Bush before joining the DEP in November 1999. "They were just inferences that I've gathered over the years from science courses and reading. What I should have said all along is we don't know what the risks could pose, and we're taking precautionary measures."

Arsenic can cause cancer and other health problems. With worried Floridians calling state agencies for help to determine how much risk they might face from arsenic that leaches from the CCA wood, Struhs backed off Ross' comment.

"In terms of what her quote was based on, I don't know," Struhs said Wednesday. "I was out of town. But I can tell you, as a husband and a father of four children, if given a choice I would choose the picnic table not made out of CCA wood."

In fact, even the wood treatment industry tells consumers not to use CCA-treated lumber for food preparation surfaces or cutting boards.

Most picnic tables, however, are made of CCA-treated lumber. Lowe's sells CCA-treated picnic tables, but plans to phase them out and replace them with wood that's treated without arsenic.

In response to concerns generated from a March 11 St. Petersburg Times report that detailed arsenic leaking from pressure-treated decks, boardwalks and playgrounds, Struhs has put a temporary moratorium on the use of CCA-treated wood in state parks. He wants to see the state switch to a more environmentally friendly wood treatment that doesn't contain arsenic.

The wood treatment industry says its own studies show CCA-treated wood is safe. The state Parks Department is also trying to minimize risks from arsenic-treated lumber by putting latticework under playsets and boardwalks to prevent people from having contact with arsenic-laced dirt.

Struhs said he is unsure what the DEP will do about existing CCA-treated picnic tables at state parks.

Struhs said Ross won't be disciplined for giving out wrong information.

"You're dealing with so many issues in a day, you can't expect to be perfect," Struhs said. "I think there's a certain level of forgiveness that has to go around."

Recent coverage

The poison in your back yard (March 11, 2001)

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