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Children need tests for harm from arsenic, scientists say

By JULIE HAUSERMAN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 19, 2001

TALLAHASSEE -- A national panel of scientists says the government should test children to see if they have been exposed to dangerous levels of arsenic while playing on pressure-treated wooden playgrounds and decks.

The 26-member scientific advisory panel, assembled by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, says there is an "urgent need" for the government to start more studies now to see if widely available pressure-treated lumber poses a threat to kids.

"The general consensus is that something needs to be done about the risks to children," said researcher Helena Solo-Gabriele of the University of Miami, who served on the EPA panel. "If kids can be tested, that would be the ideal situation."

The panel's recommendation puts new pressure on the EPA to do something about the growing concern over arsenic leaking out of pressure-treated lumber, which is infused with a pesticide called chromated copper arsenate, or CCA.

Last month, Congress passed a measure that requires the EPA to speed up its safety review of arsenic-treated lumber. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission is considering a ban on the product, and government testers are fanning out across the country to test wooden playgrounds and soil for arsenic.

In March, the St. Petersburg Times commissioned soil tests at five wooden playgrounds around the Tampa Bay area, and found arsenic in every case at levels higher than the state considers safe. Arsenic can cause cancer and other health problems.

But no one has actually tested children who play on the wood to see how much arsenic they may be absorbing from the wood or soil. The scientific panel says researchers should test children's urine to see if it contains arsenic. The panel's recommendations are just that, and the EPA can choose to abide by them or overrule them.

This spring, the EPA plans to release its preliminary findings on the risk that the wood poses to children, and to those who work with it. State and local officials are waiting for the EPA's guidance. Some communities around the country have elected to shut down public wooden playgrounds. Others have replaced playground dirt and put up warning signs. In Florida, state parks have stopped using arsenic-treated wood on most new projects.

The scientific panel says the EPA should require that existing arsenic-treated wood be coated with a sealer to reduce the amount of arsenic that comes off on people's skin.

Pressure is also mounting against the $4-billion-a-year wood-treatment industry, Lowe's and Home Depot. They face two national class-action lawsuits, including one in Miami that accuses the industry of negligence for not warning people about the potential hazards of working with the wood. Some people have won legal settlements against the wood-treatment industry after being poisoned by the wood.

A move to ban arsenic-treated wood on public playgrounds in Florida died in the Legislature this month after political pressure from the wood-treatment industry and chemical companies. For the industry, the stakes are huge: bug-filled Florida is the nation's biggest market for pressure-treated lumber.

Environmentalists say the industry should switch to safer chemicals. The same companies that make arsenic-treated wood here in the United States sell an arsenic-free, pressure-treated wood overseas in countries that have either banned the wood or restricted it.

Mel Pine, spokesman for the American Wood Preservers Institute, said the industry would support a program to test children.

"We're fully supportive of doing all the science that's necessary," Pine said. "We recognize that the EPA is under some pressure to act."

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