St. Petersburg Times Online: News of Florida

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

Error underestimates arsenic risk

By JULIE HAUSERMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 18, 2001


TALLAHASSEE -- A scientist hired by the pressure-treated wood industry has admitted making a major mathematical error in a study that claims children face little risk from arsenic in the wood.

TALLAHASSEE -- A scientist hired by the pressure-treated wood industry has admitted making a major mathematical error in a study that claims children face little risk from arsenic in the wood.

The mistake underestimated the exposure that children face from arsenic in the wood by 1,000 times.

"It was one of those math errors, transposing one number for another, and it was off by a thousand-fold," said Mel Pine, a spokesman for the American Wood Preservers Institute, an industry trade group. "We did correct the mistake within a week of the time we were informed of it."

The scientist, Florida State University toxicologist Christopher Teaf, was hired by the industry's Florida lobbyists, the Hopping, Green, Sams & Smith firm. Teaf's study went out late last year and was posted on the American Wood Preservers Institute Web site and handed out to Florida lawmakers, regulators and legislative researchers to allay fears about the risk posed by arsenic in pressure-treated lumber.

Teaf said this week that the error doesn't change his opinion that children face no unacceptable health risks from arsenic in pressure-treated lumber -- a conclusion that the state is now disputing.

Teaf's mistake was discovered by Florida Department of Environmental Protection scientists.

"It's remarkable that you could make a mistake that was a thousand-fold difference," said DEP Secretary David Struhs. "I'm really pleased that the system worked and one of our hard-working technical people was able to discover it."

Teaf's error raises new questions about the wood-treatment industry's facts and figures. For years, they have funded dozens of industry studies that say the wood doesn't pose any risk, even though arsenic leaks out of it.

And now the industry is facing a federal class-action lawsuit in Miami, which accuses pressure-treated wood manufacturers of "negligence" and "intentional disregard" for knowingly allowing arsenic-laced wood into the marketplace without informing consumers of the risk.

The wood-treatment industry's admission about its flawed figures also follows news that a vice president from Arch Wood Treatment, an international company, claimed under oath in federal court in Atlanta last June that the wood doesn't contain arsenic, even though company documents clearly list arsenic as an ingredient.

The executive, William J. Baldwin, is vice president of operations and industry relations for Arch Wood Treatment, formerly the Hickson Corp. He testified that he has been involved in the industry since 1974, often preparing documents to submit to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Pine, of the American Wood Preserver's Institute, said he couldn't explain why a wood-treatment executive would claim under oath that the wood doesn't contain arsenic.

"We've never said, as far as I know, that the wood doesn't contain arsenic," Pine said.

Recent coverage

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

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.