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Denial heats up arsenic debate

Experts take issue with a wood company executive's testimony that his lumber doesn't contain the toxin, which can leach into the soil.

By JULIE HAUSERMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 16, 2001


Experts take issue with a wood company executive's testimony that his lumber doesn't contain the toxin, which can leach into the soil.

TALLAHASSEE -- Under oath last June, an executive with one of the nation's top pressure-treated wood companies testified that the lumber doesn't have arsenic in it -- even though the company's own documents say it does.

The statement is baffling to scientists and regulators who are documenting how ordinary pressure-treated lumber is leaching arsenic into soils in Florida and all over the world. The arsenic comes from chromated copper arsenate, or CCA, a pesticide that's infused into the wood to make it resistant to bugs.

The statement, by William J. Baldwin, a vice president of the Georgia-based international wood-treatment giant Hickson Corp., now called Arch Wood Treatment, adds a new wrinkle to the debate over pressure-treated lumber.

Until now, no treated-wood industry officials have publicly denied that the wood contains arsenic.

"Arsenic is a highly toxic, poisonous and deadly substance often used as an insecticide or weed killer," says Baldwin's sworn statement, part of a lawsuit filed in federal court in Atlanta. "Wolmanized pressure-treated wood does not contain arsenic. Instead, Wolmanized pressure-treated wood contains a preservative formulated by Hickson (Wolmanized In-Wood Preservative.)"

But other company documents clearly list the Wolmanized wood preservative as CCA, which contains arsenic.

It's sold in most home-improvement stores, including Lowe's and Home Depot. Arch Wood Treatment's consumer information sheet also says that the wood is treated with CCA, and "may present certain hazards." And the company's "Material Safety Data Sheet," a federal requirement, lists an arsenic compound as one of the hazardous ingredients in the Wolmanized brand treated lumber. It also says: "One ounce of treated wood dust per 10 pounds of body weight ingested may cause acute arsenic intoxication."

Baldwin declined to explain his comment to the St. Petersburg Times. Arch Wood Treatment spokesman Huck DeVenzio said "I'm not going to have a comment, either." Baldwin's attorney also declined comment.

Florida's top environmental regulator, Department of Environmental Protection Secretary David Struhs, was surprised to hear about Baldwin's comment.

"He said it doesn't contain arsenic? The fact of the matter is, the end result when it leaches out is you get arsenic in the soil," Struhs said. "What we look for is the potential for human exposure, and that's exposure to arsenic when it leaches out."

Baldwin's statement comes at a vulnerable time for the wood-treatment industry. The industry is facing a public relations crisis as news spreads that arsenic is leaching out of pressure-treated wood into soil all over Florida and the United States, including state parks, back yards and playgrounds with wooden playscapes.

In Miami, a team of lawyers has filed a class action lawsuit against the wood-treatment industry, Home Depot and Lowe's. The lawsuit alleges that people have been poisoned by the 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."

One key issue in the case is how much the industry knew about the hazards of CCA wood, and how much it told the public.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency banned most arsenic pesticides years ago -except pressure-treated wood. The EPA reviewed CCA 19 years ago, and recommended that the wood carry a warning label.

But the wood-treatment industry balked at the labeling requirement. Instead, they persuaded the EPA to allow them to conduct a "Voluntary Consumer Awareness Program."

Today, consumers are supposed to get a fact sheet that advises anyone working with the wood to wear a dust mask, goggles and gloves. You're supposed to collect the arsenic-laced sawdust and dispose of it. You're supposed to work in a well-ventilated area and wash clothes covered in sawdust separately. Burning the wood can be life-threatening.

Although the industry promised years ago that placards would be "prominently displayed" in home improvement stores to tell consumers about the information sheets, it never happened. And the EPA never challenged the industry about it.

Pressure-treated lumber also has enough toxic chemicals in it to be classified as a hazardous waste, but the industry got an exemption from federal hazardous waste laws years ago. Florida regulators are now challenging that exemption, and they traveled to Washington last week to ask the EPA to take a new look at whether the wood should be re-classified as a hazardous waste. Florida DEP officials are worried that old wood dumps could leach arsenic into drinking water supplies.

The industry has alternative chemicals available to treat wood -- pesticides that don't contain arsenic. They market arsenic-free wood in some countries that have banned or restricted CCA.

In fact, Baldwin's own company, Arch Wood Treatment, markets an arsenic-free wood in New Zealand, calling it "a significant improvement over traditional CCA treatment, as it substantially reduces reliance on and exposure to the more toxic heavy metals such as chromium and arsenic. . . . It is environmentally responsible to specify or use Copper Azole treated lumber."

Baldwin made his sworn statement that the wood doesn't have arsenic in it as part of an unusual set of lawsuits filed in federal court in Atlanta.

The legal story began last May, when a wood-treater named Pat Bischel sent a fax to his customers. Bischel used to make CCA-treated wood at his Northern Crossarm Co. in Wisconsin. But about seven years ago, worried about arsenic in the wood, he switched to an arsenic-free treatment called ACQ.

Bischel's fax to his customers said: "Ouch! During the last five weeks, five major metropolitan news programs have done news segments warning the public about the dangers of CCA-treated wood.

"In court depositions in 1998, Hickson representatives admitted to knowing of at least a dozen instances of purported personal injuries caused by exposure to Wolmanized pressure treated wood.

"Is it time for you to switch to a treated wood without arsenic?

"Call us for more information on ACQ Preserve."

Hickson sued Bischel, alleging deceptive trade practices. A judge issued an injunction to prevent Bischel from making statements disparaging CCA wood.

"I'm not supposed to tell you, for instance, that CCA treated wood contains arsenic," Bischel said in a telephone interview.

In his sworn statement, Baldwin, the Hickson executive, denied that Hickson executives ever admitted to knowing of injuries caused by the wood. And, he said, the wood doesn't contain arsenic.

"I have no idea under the sun what he's talking about," said Bischel's attorney, David McRae of Indiana, who has filed several lawsuits against the wood-treatment industry. "The wood absolutely contains arsenic."

Bischel, in turn, filed a countersuit accusing Hickson of defaming his character. Both suits are pending in Atlanta.

A lawyer for Hickson, William Maycock of Georgia, declined to comment on the case.

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