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Arsenic risk baffles Florida officials

State agencies cannot say how much arsenic in treated wood presents a health risk to children.


© St. Petersburg Times, published April 26, 2001

State agencies cannot say how much arsenic in treated wood presents a health risk to children.

TALLAHASSEE -- When tests around the state showed arsenic leaking from pressure-treated wood into playground dirt, the Florida Department of Health started getting phone calls.

People wanted to know: How much arsenic is enough to worry about?

What the Department of Health did next has caused controversy among scientists and a disagreement between two state agencies that are charged with protecting the public from environmental risk.

In a March 16 news release, the Department of Health said children wouldn't face an increased risk of cancer if playground soil tests turned up arsenic levels that were 10 parts per million or less.

But now, the Department of Health is backing off that number.

The state toxicologist who came up with the number, Joe Sekerke, now says: "I didn't really intend it to be the end-all number at all."

In fact, there is no such "bright line" number to say how much arsenic on playground poses a health risk, Sekerke said.

Some parks officials around Florida relied on the Department of Health's release when they decided whether to close or reopen a playground. Some posted it at parks as guidance to the public. The release also went out to all county health departments in Florida, so officials could answer questions. And it was given to media statewide to help reporters evaluate arsenic levels. Some newspapers reported that 10 parts per million was the "safe" level recommended by the state Department of Health.

The arsenic in treated wood comes from chromated copper arsenate, or CCA, a pesticide that is infused into the wood to make it last longer.

The Health Department's fuzzy advice to Floridians shows the wide differences in the way governments have dealt with regulating pressure-treated lumber. The lumber has been banned in some countries. It has enough toxic chemicals in it to be a hazardous waste, but the industry got a special exemption from hazardous waste laws years ago.

Sekerke, the Department of Health toxicologist, now says his statewide release came from some quick calculations he based, entirely, on arsenic tests that the St. Petersburg Times commissioned for five playgrounds around Tampa Bay. He noted the highest test result the newspaper found -- at Al Lopez Park in Tampa -- was about 10 parts per million. (The actual result was 9.3 parts per million.)

"We stopped at 10 because that was the highest level you found," Sekerke said. "We didn't evaluate what the risk of cancer would be at other numbers."'

When the Department of Health's news release went out, scientists and other agencies started raising questions.

Officials at the Department of Environmental Protection were baffled, since the amount of arsenic that the DEP allows when polluters clean up neighborhood soil is 0.8 parts per million, about a dozen times lower than the Department of Health's 10 parts per million. According to e-mails at the Department of Health, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also placed a call to Florida, asking how the state came up with the 10 parts per million figure.

Arsenic expert Steve Roberts of the University of Florida first raised questions about the Department of Health's news release. In a March 21 letter to DEP, Roberts warned that the Department of Health's "rationale may be misleading."

"I am concerned about the statement in the news release that 'the time a child would spend playing on CCA-treated wood, or in the arsenic contaminated soil, is too short to produce cancer, even if the child played on the contaminated site every day of their childhood.'

"While I'm sure that it was not intended, this statement could easily be read to mean that arsenic exposure is incapable of producing cancer, no matter the dose, if the exposure period is as short as several years. This is not the case," wrote Roberts, who does scientific work for the DEP.

Roberts further explained: "A dose that poses no risk of cancer has never been identified" and "I think that induction of cancer with exposure over a period of time equivalent to childhood is certainly possible at sufficient arsenic doses."

At the DEP's request, Roberts reviewed scientific studies on arsenic exposure for children and concluded that they may face an "unacceptable health risk" just from normal contact with pressure-treated wood during childhood.

The Department of Health amended its original news release a month later, adding this note at the bottom: "The 10 ppm concentration is not intended to be a standard or guideline."

For local officials, waffling by the Department of Health has added to growing frustration. Playgrounds all over the state have been closed, and some reopened, although there's no scientific consensus on how much arsenic in playground soil poses a risk. Arsenic can cause health problems later on for children, although no published studies have linked exposure to the poison at childhood to health problems in adulthood. The wood treatment industry says its studies show that the wood is safe.

Even the DEP has given conflicting advice to the public.

DEP spokeswoman Lucia Ross told the Tallahassee Democrat on March 27: "You could eat on a picnic table made of this wood every day for the rest of your natural life and there would be no significant effect to your health."

A day later, Ross admitted: "I don't have any scientific basis for what I said. ... What I should have said all along is we don't know what the risks could pose, and we're taking precautionary measures."

The state's flip-flop frustrated local officials like Pasco County school Superintendent John Long. He had school playgrounds tested, found arsenic and looked for guidance from the state.

"We opened the (playgrounds) up one day when we read you could eat off treated wood the rest of your life with no problem," Long said. "We closed them the next day whenever she (Ross) said it was just a gut feeling, that she didn't have any scientific data to back that up.

"It's very frustrating. We rely on state or federal officials to tell us what's safe. We're not experts."

Long closed the district's wooden playgrounds for the rest of the year.

Meanwhile, a Tampa Bay lawmaker, Republican Rep. Larry Crow of Palm Harbor, is trying to ban arsenic-treated lumber from Florida's public playgrounds.

Gov. Jeb Bush's health secretary, Bob Brooks, said his department prefers not to set a statewide standard and to evaluate arsenic on playgrounds on a "case by case" basis.

On Wednesday, officials from the Department of Health and DEP met to decide how to respond to concerns about arsenic in CCA wood. The departments intend to work with scientists and pediatricians to learn more about how to evaluate the risk.

"In order for us to be able to come forward on this statewide, we need to get a sense of who around the state can accurately evaluate for arsenic," Brooks said.

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