Home Depot and Lowe's have no plans to cease carrying the lumber.
By JULIE HAUSERMAN
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 8, 2001
TALLAHASSEE -- Two national environmental groups want Lowe's and Home Depot stores to stop selling arsenic-treated wood, saying new tests show that children increase their cancer risk by just touching the boards.
Representatives for the two retail giants said Wednesday that they have no plans to stop selling arsenic-treated wood, and will await further direction from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The Environmental Working Group, known for its scientific reports on pesticides on produce, and the Healthy Building Network sent volunteers in August and September to Lowe's and Home Depot stores in 13 states, but not in Florida.
The volunteers bought pressure-treated lumber, a popular wood infused with a pesticide called chromated copper arsenate. Using special moist wipes and templates, they rubbed a small area. The wipes were tested at a laboratory at the University of North Carolina in Asheville. In every case, the wipes came back positive for arsenic, some at very high levels, the groups reported.
In all cases, the wood had more arsenic on its surface than the EPA would allow in a glass of water.
"On average, on a small area of wood the size of a 4-year-old's hand, we easily wiped off 25 times the amount of arsenic that an adult would get from just one day's exposure to arsenic in drinking water," said Jane Houlihan, the Environmental Working Group's director of research.
"The amounts are really large, and some samples were just off the charts," she said. "That's just the amount on a little piece of wood. When a child is playing on the wood, they are touching it all the time. They could be getting a lot more arsenic."
Mel Pine, spokesman for the American Wood Preservers Institute, said the two environmental groups are using bad science to create "scary statistics."
"They don't tell you what would come off on a hand," Pine said. "They only tell you what comes off on a moistened wipe."
Pine said other studies show that arsenic does rub off the wood, but at much lower levels.
At a Lowe's in Asheville, N.C., volunteers found the highest level of arsenic in their nationwide survey: The amount that rubbed off was as much as the arsenic allowed in more than 500 child-sized glasses of water.
The groups are selling home testing kits for anyone who wants to test wooden playgrounds or decks for arsenic. (The kits cost between $15 and $20. Check www.ewg.org or www.healthybuilding.net or details.)
Both groups are pushing for an outright ban on treated wood, which they say exposes American children to an unnecessary extra dose of the poison. Kids are already exposed to arsenic in drinking water and in soils in some parts of the country.
"For children who regularly play on the wood, we estimate that one child in every grade school will develop bladder or lung cancer later in life," the groups' report says.
The groups are specifically targeting Lowe's and Home Depot in a national advertising and public relations campaign. An ad asks: "If Arsenic-Treated Wood is Too Toxic for Zoo Animals . . . Why does Home Depot Think it's Safe for Your Kids?" In fact, many zoos -- including Disney's Animal Kingdom -- stopped using arsenic-treated wood out of concern for the animals.
America's treated wood industry is worth about $4-billion a year, according to its trade group.
Arsenic-treated wood is banned in some countries. The same companies that make arsenic-treated wood in the United States also make an arsenic-free variety, which they sell overseas.
Lowe's and Home Depot -- both being sued in national class action lawsuits over treated wood -- say they have been working with the EPA to get safety information to consumers.
"Lowe's' position is that we purchase lumber from reputable vendors," said Lowe's spokeswoman Chris Ahearn. "All the lumber we buy is certified to meet all the requirements of the federal government."
Home Depot spokesman Don Harrison said his company is waiting for a new EPA report, expected next year, on the safety of treated wood.
"We don't do product testing," he said. "We depend on the regulatory agencies to tell us what's safe. The EPA says if it's handled properly, it's safe."