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Health concerns from arsenic in treated wood?

By JEFF WEBB

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 1, 2001


I've found something new to blame all my troubles on.

Failing memory. Gray hair. Weight gain. Fatigue. Poor eyesight. Lack of muscle tone.

The culprit could be chromated copper arsenate.

Say that fast three times.

I don't mean to make light of what is a serious health concern. But until I read Times staff writer Julie Hauserman's investigative report March 11, I didn't even know it existed. Now, it turns out, I and untold others may have been poisoned by chemically treated wood, the kind many of us use to build the decks, fences and doghouses in our back yards.

Even though manufacturers and the federal government have known for decades that the treated wood poses a risk to those who touch it, and that it can leach poisonous arsenic into the ground, the word hasn't trickled down to the masses of folks who buy the stuff. Clearly printed warnings might have accomplished that, but the government -- specifically the Environmental Protection Agency -- delegated that responsibility to the people who profit from pedaling the poisonous material. And, as usual, that's bad news for unsuspecting consumers.

Over the years, I've helped two friends build decks in their back yards. I helped another build a picnic table on which we enjoyed many cook-outs. All used the treated wood, and all were clueless that we were handling a possibly toxic material.

But my most recent, and perhaps the riskiest exposure to arsenic-treated wood was in 1995, when I joined more than 1,000 volunteers to help build the Creative Community Playground behind City Hall in Crystal River.

When several Times colleagues and I reported for duty that Saturday in November, I was labeled a "skilled" worker based on my positive response to one question: "Can you use power tools?" With that, I was assigned to a volunteer supervisor, who truly was a skilled worker. For a short while, I hammered nails, and measured and cut boards with a skill saw. But then I was handed a router plane. For those who may not know, a router is a power tool about 12 inches wide and 4 inches long. The user grips it on each end and runs it back and forth along the length of a board or beam to smooth out rough edges or make grooves in the wood. That is all I did for the rest of the day (besides using groups of muscles that had been on vacation too long).

The beams were already in place and most were above my head, which, given the reality of some complicated concept called gravity, resulted in all the sawdust falling back into my face. It clung to my sweaty skin and clothes like paste, and because I wore no dust mask, I inhaled enough of it to make blowing my nose a psychedelic experience for the next couple of days.

I'm sure other workers had even more exposure to the treated wood than I did that weekend. The same goes for others who participated in similar projects in communities around Tampa Bay, including Tom Varn Park in Brooksville and Sims Park in New Port Richey.

Now we find, through tests conducted by a professional laboratory and paid for by the Times, that elevated levels of arsenic have been found in the ground beneath the parks where the arsenic-laced wood was used.

No one knows yet how, or to what extent, the treated wood has affected humans. According to a report last week in the Gainesville Sun, some juries have decided that it can cause weakness, memory loss, hair loss, partial paralysis and trouble breathing, and they've awarded monetary damages to the unknowing victims.

What bothers me is that neither we, nor parents who have been bringing their children to the playgrounds all these years, knew there was a risk.

Had I known, would it have stopped me from pitching in to build the playground, or help a neighbor erect a sun deck? Probably not, but it certainly would have caused me to take some fundamental precautions against the invisible poison, such as wearing a mask or goggles or a long-sleeved shirt.

In the three weeks since Hauserman's report was published in the Times, there has been much debate by the state Department of Environmental Protection and the manufacturers of the the treated wood. None of it has been conclusive, but it has prompted very real concerns from parents and government types who are responsible for the public's safety. Crystal River commissioned its own tests and is waiting for the results, which are due this week. Neither Brooksville nor New Port Richey closed their affected parks.

Chromated copper arsenate.

It reminds me of that old song in which the singer resents being told he's dying from a disease he can't even pronounce.

But the song is funny. This is not.

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