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Arsenic facts and tips

By Times staff writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 18, 2001

Some questions and answers on arsenic

Some questions and answers on arsenic

* * *

Q: How can arsenic affect you?

A: Chronic exposure to arsenic can cause cancer or other health problems. You can pick up minute levels of arsenic from touching treated wood or from touching soil that is contaminated with arsenic.

The main route of exposure from CCA-treated wood is hand-to-mouth, meaning people touch the wood or contaminated dirt and then eat, smoke or put their hands in their mouths. It can also be absorbed through the skin.

People also can inhale arsenic sawdust when working with the wood. Smoke from treated-wood fires is toxic, and the ash is hazardous.

Q: How much risk does it pose?

A: That's a tricky question, as any homeowner will soon find out if they call around for an answer.

Private and government studies offer varied conclusions. In the end, consumers have to make a judgment call on how much risk -- or how many unknowns -- they are willing to accept.

Q: If I'm concerned about arsenic in the soil, what should I do?

A: You can call a private laboratory and pay for tests of the soil and/or the wood.

Testing companies charge up to $40 to test backyard soil for arsenic. Look in the Yellow Pages under laboratories.

Q: Is there some alternative to CCA-wood?

A: Yes. One alternative is ACQ, which is pressure-treated, has a long outdoor life and doesn't contain arsenic. Some lumber companies can special order it. Home improvement stores might start to carry it if demand increases.

Because it isn't yet widely available, it costs more. Ask for price quotes.

Plastic decking or playground equipment is another option. Some consumers also choose wood that is naturally pest-resistant, such as redwood or cypress.

Dos and don'ts

Don't inhale sawdust from treated wood. Saw the wood outdoors. Wear a dust mask.

Don't use treated wood for cutting boards or counter tops.

Don't use treated wood to store food or animal feed.

Don't use treated wood for wood chips or mulch.

Don't burn treated wood; the smoke and ash are toxic.

Don't let treated wood come into contact with drinking water.

Don't grow edible plants near treated decks; put a plastic liner on the inside of CCA boards used to frame garden beds.

Wash exposed areas thoroughly after working with the wood -- and before eating, drinking or smoking.

Wash children's hands after they play on treated-wood playgrounds.

Some experts recommend that treated wood be coated with a sealant every two years, but how much that helps is debatable. A Consumer Product Safety Commission study found that sealants didn't keep the arsenic from leaching out. Sealants might be a good idea, though, to prevent splinters.

Add an extra layer of ground cover -- but not recycled wood mulch -- under your play set to keep kids from having contact with the soil.

Sources: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, American Wood Preservers Institute, Connecticut Department of Health, Florida Departments of Health and Environmental Protection.

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