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EPA wants arsenic warnings on wood

The Consumer Product Safety Commission also will seek public comment on a petition to ban CCA-treated wood.

By CRAIG PITTMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 4, 2001


The Consumer Product Safety Commission also will seek public comment on a petition to ban CCA-treated wood.

Amid calls for increased regulation, the Environmental Protection Agency announced Tuesday that it has approved a plan calling for the pressure-treated wood industry to better inform buyers that its product contains arsenic.

New labels and signs in home improvement and hardware stores such as Home Depot and Lowe's should make consumers more aware of the risks of buying wood infused with chromated copper arsenate, or CCA, according to the EPA and industry spokesmen.

By fall the EPA-required labeling should appear on every piece of CCA-treated lumber. It will warn buyers that they should wear goggles, gloves and a dust mask when cutting or sawing. The labels also advise people never to burn pressure-treated wood. There will also be stickers and signs for all in-store displays, a toll-free hotline and a Web site.

For the first time, the label on CCA-treated lumber would specifically say, "This product contains arsenic," EPA spokesman David Deegan said.

Environmental activists scoffed at the EPA announcement, noting that a voluntary labeling program initiated in the 1980s has not stopped arsenic from leaking out of the wood at public playgrounds.

"Better labeling on a toxic product doesn't help," said Laura Chapin of the Environmental Working Group. "It hasn't worked for 15 years, and all of a sudden it's going to work?"

The Environmental Working Group and the Healthy Building Network have petitioned the Consumer Product Safety Commission to ban use of CCA, a powerful pesticide that is supposed to protect the wood against termites, beetles and humidity.

They said a 1990 study by the commission underestimated the risk of cancer from CCA by failing to account for the risks of the treated wood -- frequently used in playgrounds, decks, railings, picnic tables, fences and docks -- rubbing off on skin or leaching into places where it can be ingested.

On Tuesday, the commission took the first step toward the ban by agreeing, on a 3-0 vote, to let the public comment on the petition by publishing it in the Federal Register. Based on those comments and on additional research, the commission could vote to begin rulemaking on banning CCA-treated wood from playgrounds, spokesman Scott Wolfson said.

"The commission has many options," he said. "We're at the early stages of the process."

Mel Pine, a spokesman for the American Wood Preservers Institute, said the industry is not surprised at the Consumer Product Safety Commission vote and recognizes its interest in the issue, but he declined to comment further on that development.

Pine said the industry "fully accepts" the EPA labeling program. Institute executives have promised "rapid implementation" of the labels to ensure the products are handled safely by buyers and builders.

The industry discussed the new labels at an EPA sponsored meeting in the Washington area last month.

Arsenic-treated wood has been banned in other countries, but the industry has fought off restrictions in California, Minnesota and elsewhere, even though the wood has enough toxic chemicals to rank as a toxic waste.

Now lawmakers in the U.S. Senate and in Florida are seeking new restrictions on arsenic-treated wood. Florida regulators want the wood classified as a hazardous waste. Florida has declared a moratorium on any new arsenic-treated lumber in state parks, and a bill pending in next year's Legislature would ban arsenic-treated wood in public playgrounds. The $4-billion-a-year industry also faces several lawsuits.

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 but concluded that the economic impact would be too great. Instead it called for voluntary labeling of the product to warn buyers to use precautions when working with it.

The industry barely complied with the voluntary program. Even the lumber that was tagged did not spell out what chemical it contained. The EPA never enforced 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.

Deegan said the EPA will be more active in monitoring the new labels, relying on reports from its regional offices as well as state agencies such as the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. And industry officials promise they will do a better job complying with labeling requirements.

However, at the EPA-sponsored public meeting on the proposed labeling system last month, environmentalists and some state health officials said the government should do more to prevent people from being exposed to arsenic from CCA wood.

In late October, the EPA plans to hold a public meeting of one of its science advisory panels to better calculate children's potential exposure in playgrounds. Next year the EPA expects to release a comprehensive review of CCA-treated wood that could lead to more regulatory changes.

Arsenic has become a hot topic in light of the Bush administration's decision to suspend until early next year former President Clinton's proposal to tighten the standard for arsenic in drinking water.

"This is the second bad decision on arsenic from the Bush EPA in the last six months," complained Richard Wiles of the Environmental Working Group.

-- Information from the Associated Press was used in this story.

Wood warnings

The five basic messages proposed by the EPA for the labels on CCA-treated wood:

Caution: Arsenic is in the pesticide applied to this wood.

Never burn treated wood.

Wear dust mask and goggles when cutting or sanding wood.

Wear gloves when working with wood.

Ask for the consumer safety information sheet or call 1-800-xxx-xxxx (Hotline has not been set up yet).

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