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U.S. tests for arsenic in playgrounds set

The tests come as those in the pressure-treated wood industry face lawsuits over their product.


© St. Petersburg Times, published September 26, 2001

The tests come as those in the pressure-treated wood industry face lawsuits over their product.

TALLAHASSEE -- The U.S. government plans to take more than 1,000 samples at wooden playgrounds around the country to find out if the arsenic in pressure-treated lumber is leaking out.

The testing could start as soon as November, according to a draft plan released this week by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The government's action follows a series of studies around the country -- including soil tests commissioned by the St. Petersburg Times -- that show that arsenic is leaking out of pressure-treated wood, one of the most popular building products in America. The wood is infused with a pesticide called chromated copper arsenate, or CCA.

EPA plans to make random calls to city parks, private schools, day care centers and public schools, asking for permission to test. The Consumer Product Safety Commission plans to test about 75 playgrounds, and also test lumber purchased at home-improvement stores around the country. Government testers plan to take some 750 soil samples.

The strategy could change, though, in the next month. It becomes final after a 30-day public comment period.

Ordinary pressure-treated lumber has enough toxic chemicals in it to rank it as a hazardous waste, but the industry got a special exemption years ago from hazardous waste laws. The wood is banned in several countries.

Some advocates hope the federal study will lead to a ban on pressure-treated wood at playgrounds, where children can pick up traces of arsenic.

"I think we know enough now to know that CCA wood is dangerous," said Jane Houlihan, research director for the Environmental Working Group in Washington, which is pushing for a ban. "The government should be acting, not studying, at this point."

To find out whether pressure-treated lumber leaks arsenic, the Times commissioned soil tests around five wooden playgrounds, picked randomly in the Tampa Bay area. Every test came up positive for arsenic, at levels higher than the state allows when polluters clean up contaminated neighborhoods.

Pressure-treated wood executives agree that arsenic leaches out, but say the levels are too low to worry about.

"The testing that's been done in the past has consistently held up the safety of CCA wood," said Mel Pine, spokesman for the American Wood Preservers Institute, an industry trade group. "We have every reason to believe these new tests will affirm the safety of our product."

The Consumer Product Safety Commission last studied pressure-treated wood in 1990, testing seven wooden playgrounds purchased from "major U.S. manufacturers." The study found that arsenic was leaking from the wood. The study looked only at a child's risk for skin cancer from the arsenic and found "a small risk that should be reduced further if it can be practically accomplished."

Arsenic can also cause neurological problems, birth defects and other kinds of cancer.

The Environmental Working Group and the Healthy Building Network filed a petition with the Consumer Product Safety Commission last spring, asking the government to ban arsenic-treated wood on playgrounds. That petition will be addressed at a public meeting in Bethesda, Md., Oct. 3.

On Oct. 22, a scientific panel convened by the EPA will explore the risk that arsenic-treated lumber may pose to children.

The wood-treatment industry is facing legal and regulatory challenges all over the country.

In Miami, a federal class-action lawsuit says the industry and home-improvement stores were negligent because they didn't warn consumers that the wood contained toxic chemicals.

The EPA ordered the wood-treatment industry to add more warning labels on the wood, which should show up in stores before the end of the year.

Wood-treaters are also facing several personal-injury claims from people who say they have been poisoned by the wood. Some of those claims, including one filed by a Seattle teacher who was poisoned by arsenic wood when he built a raft, have been settled.

In Congress, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., is pushing a measure that would force the EPA to issue a report on arsenic-treated wood in just 30 days. He praised the government's plan to do more tests.

"Thank goodness the Consumer Product Safety Commission is coming forth," Nelson said. "The whole point of me doing my amendment and raising such a ruckus is to try to give some certainty to local government officials as to what they should do with their playgrounds. Some of them have closed, some of them have reopened. The county commissions and city councils need to have some definitive information -- is the playground soil safe or not?"

In Florida, state Rep. Larry Crow, R-Dunedin, is pushing to ban arsenic-treated wood on playgrounds. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection has stopped buying arsenic-treated lumber for state parks, and the Florida Department of Health has convened a scientific panel to look at the risk that the wood may pose to children.

There are safer alternatives to arsenic-treated wood, and some of the same companies that sell arsenic-treated wood in the United States also sell the environmentally safer kind in countries that have banned arsenic-treated wood.

This summer, a Florida wood-treatment company became the first in state history to start treating wood without arsenic.

Large retailers like Lowe's and Home Depot don't carry the arsenic-free treated wood yet. Company spokesmen say there's not enough consumer demand for it.

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