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    Coalition: Ban treated wood

    The groups also want a new study to see how much of a risk the arsenic-treated lumber poses to children.

    By JULIE HAUSERMAN

    © St. Petersburg Times, published May 24, 2001


    TALLAHASSEE -- A coalition of environmental groups on Wednesday called for an immediate ban on arsenic-treated lumber, and they petitioned federal regulators to do a new study to find out how much risk the wood poses to children.

    Also, the wood-treatment industry may be hit with another in a series of lawsuits -- this one from a public-interest law firm in California that says the wood hasn't been labeled as a toxic product, as required under California law.

    At issue is pressure-treated lumber, one of the most popular building products in America. The wood is infused with a pesticide called chromated copper arsenate, or CCA.

    Studies in Florida and elsewhere show that arsenic is leaking out of the wood into playgrounds, parks and back yards. In March, a St. Petersburg Times investigation published test results of playground dirt in five Tampa Bay playgrounds. Every sample turned up elevated levels of arsenic.

    Wednesday, two environmental groups -- The Environmental Working Group and the Healthy Building Network -- released a study that says children face more risk from arsenic in pressure-treated lumber than they do from arsenic in drinking water. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is reviewing the nation's standard for arsenic in drinking water, and President Bush's administration has been criticized for its proposal to allow higher arsenic levels, even though scientists say it will increase cancer risk.

    Every day, children are exposed to arsenic from pressure-treated wood playgrounds, decks and picnic tables. "In two weeks, an average 5-year-old playing on an arsenic-treated playset would exceed the lifetime cancer risk considered acceptable under federal pesticide law," said Renee Sharp, an analyst for the Environmental Working Group.

    The Environmental Working Group is best known for analyzing pesticide residues on children's food.

    The American Wood Preservers Institute issued a statement blasting the report as "irresponsible" and "a flawed study that draws misleading conclusions."

    Also Wednesday, The Healthy Building Network filed a petition with the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission, saying the agency has the authority "to immediately ban CCA-treated wood for use in children's playground equipment while the Commission reviews the safety of all CCA-treated wood products."

    Bill Walsh, the group's national coordinator, said the Consumer Products Safety Commission last reviewed CCA-wood playsets in 1990. But, he said, that study underestimates the risk of cancer, especially to children. More recent research shows that arsenic can cause more different kinds of cancers than once thought, as well as birth defects, neurological damage and other health problems.

    "We're talking about products that are intended for children that are filled with toxins," Walsh said.

    As the national debate over CCA wood intensifies, the EPA has speeded up its assessment of the risk the lumber may pose to children. The EPA may come out with some sort of guidance next month.

    Environmental groups are kicking off a national campaign to warn people of the dangers of CCA-treated lumber. The wood is banned in some countries, and environmentalists want it banned here. They plan to pressure home-improvement stores to start carrying the arsenic-free wood that U.S. manufacturers sell overseas.

    "We think it's incredibly hypocritical that these manufacturers make safer products for the European market and then market this stuff at home. We think the major retailers, like Lowe's and Home Depot, should offer arsenic-free lumber for American consumers," said Bill Walker, of the Environmental Working Group.

    Critics of CCA-treated wood have picked up two allies in the U.S. Senate. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., is pushing for warning labels on all pressure-treated lumber sold in America. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., issued a statement Wednesday saying the lumber should be banned.

    In Miami, the wood-treatment industry, Home Depot and Lowe's are facing a class-action lawsuit that alleges that people have been poisoned by the wood and that the industry showed a "negligent, reckless, and/or intentional disregard of the harmful effects of chemicals used in the treatment process."

    Recent coverage

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