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Arsenic arrives in 'toxic trade'

The United States is the world's No. 1 arsenic consumer, and China provides most of it.

By JULIE HAUSERMAN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 29, 2001


TALLAHASSEE -- Decks and playgrounds made of pressure-treated wood, as common in Florida as backyard barbecues, rely on an imported poison that generally comes from only one source.

China.

The United States is now the largest consumer of arsenic in the world, government documents show, and China is America's biggest supplier. Ninety percent of imported arsenic goes into pressure-treated lumber.

In China, the arsenic is an unwanted byproduct of mineral production. By the time it gets to the United States, though, it's considered an industrial ingredient. Wood treatment companies use the potent chemical in a pesticide to deter bugs and weather.

Now, the arsenic is leaking out of wooden decks and playgrounds, polluting soil in Florida and elsewhere. Government researchers are studying how much risk the arsenic pollution poses to people and the environment. Some communities have closed or replaced playgrounds made with arsenic-treated wood. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission is considering a petition by environmentalists to ban the wood.

America once produced its own arsenic, but the last facility in the U.S. closed down in 1985 after government regulators found widespread pollution. The Tacoma, Wash., plant is now a Superfund cleanup site.

Since then, China has stepped in to fill America's demand. In copper smelters, Chinese workers load rocks into hot chambers. As the rocks cook, they release poisonous arsenic gas. When the smelters cool, the arsenic gas turns to powder. Chinese mine workers go into the chambers and scrape the powder into piles.

To America's $4-billion-a-year treated wood industry, this cheap arsenic -- about 35 cents a pound or less -- is a key ingredient in their most popular product. Wood treatment companies use the arsenic in chromated copper arsenate, or CCA, a pesticide that is infused into the boards.

Environmental and human rights advocates say this Chinese arsenic is part of a "toxic trade" that uses inexpensive labor and dangerous ingredients when more benign, but often more expensive, chemicals would do the job.

"It's not far-fetched to say that the desire for decks in our back yard and wooden playgrounds is driving this international toxic trade," said Bill Walker, a spokesman for the Environmental Working Group, a national group that's working to ban arsenic-treated lumber. "It's an example of how American consumers are getting products pushed on them, and they don't really know they are at the end of a long chain that's causing problems halfway around the world."

Walker said the pressure-treated wood industry doesn't have to use arsenic. The American companies that make lumber treated with arsenic make another kind of pressure-treated lumber, one that's arsenic-free. They sell it mostly overseas, in countries where arsenic-treated wood is banned. Switzerland, Vietnam and Indonesia have banned arsenic-treated wood. Japan, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Australia and New Zealand have either restricted it or proposed restrictions.

Arsenic-free treated wood is not readily available to U.S. consumers. And for wood treaters to make the kind they sell in America, they need arsenic from abroad.

Three major U.S. companies import arsenic, according to the U.S. Geological Survey: Chemical Specialties Inc. of Charlotte, N.C.; Osmose Wood Preserving Inc. of Buffalo, N.Y.; and Arch Wood Chemicals Inc. of Norwalk, Conn.

The United States imported 34,000 metric tons of arsenic compounds in 2000, according to the USGS. Some of it came from Chile, but most came from China.

Spokesmen for all three wood-treatment companies refused to comment on the imported Chinese arsenic. Dave Fowley, spokesman for Chemical Specialties Inc., said his company considers it "proprietary information."

Human rights advocates in this country say it's tough to get details on arsenic production in China. But they say information is leaking out about Chinese workers in chemical factories and mines, and it's not good.

"Health and safety conditions are abysmal," said Ken Zinn, North American regional coordinator for the International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Worker's Unions.

About two years ago, Florida's Department of Environmental Protection in Tallahassee received an anonymous envelope in the mail. Inside there were pictures of Chinese workers, some without even rudimentary masks, standing beside huge piles of white powder. The pictures were carefully labeled, identifying the powder as arsenic trioxide.

The pictures arrived as the DEP was beginning to talk to the wood-treatment industry about a new garbage problem for Florida: arsenic leaking out of old pressure-treated wood in unlined dumps.

"There was no business card and no letter," said Bill Hinkley, who heads the DEP's division of solid and hazardous waste. "The pictures were labeled. I don't know who labeled them. We had no way of verifying what the pictures were, and DEP has no jurisdiction over worker impacts."

Zachary Mann, a U.S. Customs spokesman in Miami, said that trying to trace any product back to its Chinese source can take years, and the facts may still be muddled.

It's also hard to tell what impact the arsenic trade may be having on China's environment.

The evidence is clearer around Tacoma. ASARCO, the last domestic arsenic producer, left a legacy of pollution in the town and in Commencement Bay. Bulldozers have descended on neighborhoods, digging up 1,000 arsenic-laced yards so far. It will take years and millions of dollars before the cleanup is finished, an ASARCO spokesman said.

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