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EPA to rush arsenic-risk report

Some guidance for parents worried about pressure-treated wooden playgrounds could come as soon as next month.


© St. Petersburg Times, published May 11, 2001

Some guidance for parents worried about pressure-treated wooden playgrounds could come as soon as next month.

TALLAHASSEE -- After years of delay, the Environmental Protection Agency announced Thursday it will speed up its efforts to find out whether children face a risk from playing around pressure-treated lumber.

Some official guidance could be available for worried parents as soon as next month, EPA officials said.

The EPA's risk assessment for children wasn't due to be finished until 2003. But with wooden playgrounds closing all over Florida after tests revealed arsenic leaking from the wood, the agency is under pressure to give some indication of what risk the wood may pose. The arsenic comes from chromated copper arsenate, or CCA, a pesticide that's infused into the boards to make them last longer.

The EPA on Wednesday had a meeting with wood-treatment industry officials and retailers including Lowe's and Home Depot. The EPA asked the industry to voluntarily beef up its efforts to tell consumers that the wood contains a pesticide. The EPA recommends safety precautions for people who build with it.

As part of its speeded-up risk assessment for children, the EPA won't be producing any new research. Instead, the agency will review studies from other countries where CCA wood has been restricted or banned. The EPA also will rely on studies paid for by the wood-treatment industry and will review research from individual states, including Florida, said Susan Hazen, an EPA deputy assistant administrator who oversees pesticide regulations.

The EPA's action on CCA wood comes while President Bush is under criticism from environmentalists for proposing to weaken tough new standards for arsenic in drinking water. Scientists said the Bush arsenic standard was so high it would cause additional cases of cancer. The EPA backtracked and announced it would take a second look at the standards for arsenic in drinking water.

Among the parties who filed legal challenges to allow more arsenic in water: the American Wood Preservers Institute, the industry trade group that represents CCA wood manufacturers.

The EPA has done little to regulate CCA lumber, which is one of the most widely used building products in America. The wood has enough toxic chemicals in it to be considered a hazardous waste, but the industry was able to get EPA to exempt it from hazardous waste rules years ago. Now, Florida environmental officials are asking the EPA to revisit that decision, saying even the sawdust probably should be treated as a hazardous waste.

Since the EPA last reviewed CCA wood 19 years ago, new studies show that arsenic comes out of the wood into the soil and onto people's hands. One Florida arsenic expert says children can pick up enough arsenic from routine play on wooden playgrounds during childhood to pose an unacceptable health risk.

Wood-treatment industry officials dispute those claims and say the amount of arsenic leaking out of the wood poses little concern.

As part of a special review in the 1980s, the EPA considered banning CCA. The EPA concluded that the economic impact of an outright ban would be too great.

Instead, the EPA passed more restrictions to protect workers at wood-treatment plants, who have the greatest exposure to the chemicals. The EPA handled the consumer issue by allowing the industry to do a "voluntary consumer awareness program" that was supposed to warn people that the wood contained a pesticide and that they should use precautions when working with it. When working with CCA wood, you're supposed to wear a dust mask, gloves and coveralls to avoid getting the sawdust on you.

The industry barely complied with the voluntary program, and the EPA never did anything to enforce the agreement. The consumer information sheets only turned up in stores recently, after the St. Petersburg Times published a special report about CCA wood in March, generating similar news stories all over the country.

"We are concerned about what appears to be a case where consumers are not getting access to information which they think they should have," said Hazen, of the EPA.

The failed consumer education program is being attacked on another front, as well: 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 the industry showed a "negligent, reckless, and/or intentional disregard of the harmful effects of the chemicals used in the treatment process."

Wednesday, the EPA told the wood-treatment industry it wants better information for consumers. In a meeting with wood-treatment industry officials, retailers and environmentalists, EPA gave the industry just two weeks to submit a proposal outlining ways it will better inform consumers about CCA wood.

"What we've been asked for is what we can do real fast," said Mel Pine, spokesman for the American Wood Preservers Institute.

The program, however, would still be voluntary.

"Unless it's mandatory, I don't think anything's going to change," said Greg Kidd, of a national environmental group called Beyond Pesticides.

Next week, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., is planning to file a bill that would make it mandatory to label all CCA wood in America.

"There would have to be a warning label on each piece of arsenic-treated lumber," Nelson said. "People need to have the information."

His bill also would make EPA speed up its overall review of CCA wood, which isn't scheduled to be finished until 2003. All registered pesticides have to go through periodic reviews, and EPA started a new review of CCA last year.

"Following the thorough assessment of the scientific, health and environmental data described above, EPA will make an informed decision about whether to continue the registration of CCA products and any risk mitigation measures that may be necessary to ensure that these registered products meet all federal health and environmental safety standards," EPA administrator Christie Whitman wrote in an April 26 letter to Nelson.

Nelson asked Whitman specifically to speed up one part of the review: assessing the risk the wood may pose to children. Nelson complained that Whitman "blew me off."

Now, though, the EPA is moving forward. The agency also plans to hold a public meeting in June in Washington to discuss concerns over arsenic in pressure-treated wood.

Some people are pushing for an outright ban. A measure moving through the Minnesota Legislature would prevent the state's agencies from buying CCA wood at all. California requires a warning label on CCA wood and requires that all public playgrounds be sealed periodically. Some studies say sealing helps keep the arsenic from leaking out, others say it doesn't.

In Florida, some lawmakers tried to ban CCA wood in public playgrounds during this past legislative session, but they made no progress. Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary David Struhs has announced that the state won't use any more CCA-treated wood in the state parks.

In a prepared statement Thursday, Struhs praised the EPA for "accelerating efforts to address this emerging public health issue."

What's next for CCA-treated wood?

The EPA will use studies from other countries, from the wood-treatment industry and from states to speed up its assessment of the potential risk to children from exposure to playground equipment constructed with CCA-treated wood. That risk assessment is expected in June.

The agency also has asked the wood-treatment industry and retailers to voluntarily strengthen efforts to tell consumers the wood contains a pesticide.

The EPA's overall review of CCA-treated wood is scheduled to be finished in 2003.

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