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Treated lumber to get labels

Manufacturers vow to better inform consumers to wear protection. Critics: A voluntary program won’t work.


© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 8, 2001

Times special report

The poison in your backyard

WASHINGTON -- Faced with growing public concern about the arsenic in pressure-treated lumber, manufacturers on Thursday said they would do more to tell people that the wood contains a powerful pesticide and should be handled carefully.

The Environmental Protection Agency wants wood-treaters and home improvement stores like Lowe's and Home Depot to voluntarily put new labels on pressure-treated lumber as soon as next month.

The EPA and the wood treatment industry have been down this road before. In 1982, wood-treaters promised to do a voluntary consumer awareness program but didn't follow through. The EPA never enforced the agreement.

The industry's new labels would tell consumers that pressure-treated wood is infused with a pesticide called chromated copper arsenate, or CCA. Some pressure-treated lumber already carries a tag that says CCA, but the chemical isn't spelled out.

The new tags would warn people to wear gloves, goggles and a dust mask when working with the wood, and advise people never to burn it. The smoke and ash from pressure-treated lumber are toxic.

The industry's proposed language for the new tags is careful; it doesn't say "warning," it doesn't mention the word arsenic, it doesn't say that arsenic leaks out of the boards, and it doesn't say arsenic can cause cancer and other health problems.

At an EPA-sponsored public meeting Thursday, environmentalists and some state health officials said the government should do more to prevent people -- especially children -- from being exposed to arsenic from CCA wood. And they complained that in 19 years, the EPA has done nothing to make the industry comply with the voluntary awareness program.

In 1982, the industry promised to put "prominently displayed" signs in retail stores letting people know the wood had CCA in it. Thursday, the wood treatment industry promised, again, to put signs in stores. This time, industry officials insisted, they will make sure it happens.

"We're going to tell the whole world," pledged Scott Ramminger, who heads the American Wood Preservers Institute, a trade group.

Critics said the voluntary program didn't work before, and it probably won't work again.

"The EPA does not seem to be taking seriously the fact that the fox is guarding the henhouse," said Bill Walsh, national coordinator for the Healthy Building Network, which supports a ban on CCA wood. "We have years of failure here, and we're going back and relying on the same people who failed. This must be mandatory."

Anne Lindsay, the EPA pesticide official who ran the public meeting, said she thinks a voluntary awareness program run by industry still can work.

"One advantage a voluntary program has -- regardless of whether it has worked in the past or not -- is that it is something that might happen quite quickly," Lindsay said.

The EPA planned to release a quick review this month about the risks children might face from CCA lumber, but the review won't be ready until late summer, Lindsay said. The wood treatment industry, Home Depot and Lowe's are facing a federal class-action lawsuit that accuses them of negligence for not telling people the wood contains arsenic.

Environmentalists complained Thursday that the EPA allowed Ramminger, of the wood trade group, to sit at a head table but didn't give consumer representatives the same opportunity. EPA staffers also handed out a news release prepared by the wood treatment industry.

The $4-billion-a-year wood treatment industry carries considerable political clout. Arsenic-treated wood has been banned in other countries, but the industry has fought off restrictions in California, Minnesota, Florida and elsewhere. The industry also won a special exemption from EPA laws years ago, even though the wood has enough toxic chemicals to rank as a toxic waste.

Thursday's meeting underscored how far-ranging the debate over CCA has become in just a few months since the St. Petersburg Times published test results that showed arsenic in five Tampa Bay area playgrounds in March.

There were industry representatives, scientists, and officials from Canada and several states. Several health officials urged the EPA to make the consumer warnings stronger.

"It needs to have big letters that say "Warning,' just like on a can of paint you buy or other products," said Gary Ginsberg, a health official from Connecticut. "It should say "pesticide."'

Florida researcher Helena Solo-Gabriele of the University of Miami said the label also should warn consumers not to dispose of the wood in an unlined landfill and not to use it to make wood chips or garden mulch.

Ramminger, of the trade group, said arsenic leaches out of the wood but poses little concern.

"A lot of things contain components that are known human carcinogens. But the question is, what does that really mean?" Ramminger said. "I worry about my kids crossing the street. I worry about them talking to strangers. I have no concerns about them playing on CCA-treated wood."

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