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    Touching treated wood may pose risk

    Normal contact with the wood used for playgrounds can give kids unacceptable doses of arsenic, an expert hired by the state says.

    By JULIE HAUSERMAN

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 18, 2001


    TALLAHASSEE -- A scientific expert hired by the state is sounding an alarm about pressure-treated wood, saying that children could get enough arsenic on their hands from touching treated wood playgrounds and decks to pose a health risk.

    The expert, University of Florida researcher Steve Roberts, says the state should encourage playgrounds to switch to other materials, or choose wood that's treated with an arsenic-free preservative.

    "Despite the fact that the risks can vary, . . . we should be concerned about unrestricted contact with CCA wood," Roberts wrote in a draft report commissioned by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

    Normal contact with the wood can give children arsenic doses "high enough to be unacceptable from a health protection standpoint," Roberts wrote.

    "As we look at the data, some of the data suggests there's not a problem, and some of the data suggests there is," Roberts said in an interview Tuesday. "Until we have a better handle on this, it would make sense to reduce exposure."

    Most pressure-treated lumber is infused with chromated copper arsenate, or CCA, a pesticide that contains arsenic.

    Roberts also suggests coating existing treated wood with a sealant, even though it's debatable whether that keeps arsenic from leaching out. The state of California requires that all public treated-wood playgrounds be sealed, and Minnesota is trying to pass a similar law.

    Roberts' findings could set up a new battleground between state regulators and the wood-treatment industry, which says pressure-treated lumber is safe.

    The findings also could affect dozens of wooden playgrounds around the state -- in parks, day care centers and schools.

    "Clearly," said DEP Secretary David Struhs, "this is going to force a lot of people to re-evaluate how we manage the risk. The scientific work that's being done here has raised questions all over the state -- and the country."

    "As we go forward, we're not going to use any more of this wood on state parks. Eventually, it will all be replaced. We have to figure out what we're going to do with the wood that's already out there."

    Roberts' study for the DEP didn't address the risk posed when children play in soil near playgrounds with treated wood. Instead, he was paid by the state to review other studies that estimate how much arsenic kids might be exposed to when they touch the wood.

    He reviewed studies by government agencies in California, Connecticut and Washington, D.C., and found that kids can pick up significant levels of arsenic by touching the wood.

    Long-term exposure to arsenic can cause cancer. But Roberts looked at the risk for other health problems that arsenic can cause, including rashes, skin lesions, neurological problems and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Roberts says he has heard no reports of children suffering these effects, but says his calculations show the risk is there.

    As part of a special report published last month, the St. Petersburg Times commissioned independent tests of playground soil near five wooden playgrounds in the Tampa Bay area. The tests revealed arsenic in every case, at levels higher than the state allows when polluters have to clean up contaminated neighborhoods.

    Some playgrounds around the state were shut down after tests detected arsenic in the soil. Some have reopened, even though there's no official "safe" cutoff for arsenic in playground soils. In most cases, the decision on whether to close a park has been a judgment call by local officials.

    And local officials face a quandary over what to do. At Al Lopez Park in Tampa, for example, officials closed the wooden playground after the Times' test showed arsenic in the soil. The city commissioned its own tests, and found arsenic at higher levels than the Times test did. Parks director Ross Ferlita decided to reopen it, saying, "We feel there's no immediate danger at all."

    Now, Ferlita said, news that kids might face a health risk from touching the wood adds even more uncertainty.

    "We want to do what's right," Ferlita said. "The frustration is not having any one agency that represents everybody that's saying: Yes, there's a problem."

    In New Port Richey, where tests found arsenic in playground soil at Sims Park, parks director Rob Consalvo opted not to close the playground. The city's consultants said the risk from the arsenic in the soil was low.

    But no one considered arsenic exposure that may be coming when kids touch the wood.

    "Obviously, if it's harmful that children put their hands on it, that's a problem. But somebody give us something in writing. Everything we get is controversial, and nothing is scientific enough."

    In the Volusia County town of DeLand, park superintendent Larry Nordman told the Daytona Beach News Journal: "I think it's probably one of those things that you'd have to lay on it naked for 100 years before your exposure is too great."

    In fact, no studies confirm that.

    In Brooksville, officials decided to keep Tom Varn Park open, even though arsenic has leaked from the wood into the soil. The city posted a notice saying the wood in the playgrounds and picnic tables was treated with "a chemical preservative that should not be ingested."

    "Although we follow the manufacturer's recommendation of regularly resealing the lumber, the preservative may accumulate on railings and other surfaces, as well as in the ground under the equipment. As a precaution, unwrapped food should not be stored in direct contact with this pressure treated wood or on the ground. Please wash your hands before eating," the notice advises.

    Discovery Playground in Tarpon Springs remains closed, as does a playground at the Long Center in Clearwater.

    One state lawmaker, Republican Rep. Larry Crow of Palm Harbor, says he wants to settle the issue by banning CCA wood completely in playgrounds.

    "It was originally thought that lead paint was not a problem," Crow said. "I think, ultimately, the issue will come down to this: If our children are being exposed to an increased health risk because of arsenic, it will not be tolerated, and we're going to do something about it. I mean, if a child cannot be protected on a playground, where can he be?"

    Recent coverage

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

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