Consumer Samples Implicate Arsenic Treated Wood

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, September 3, 2002 (ENS) - Independent testing of arsenic treated wood shows that the public remains at risk from high levels of arsenic leaching out of pressure treated wood in older decks, playsets and picnic tables, shows a new report based on samples collected by consumers across the nation. The report contradicts reassurances offered earlier in the year by the federal government and the wood products industry.

The results from the largest ever testing program for arsenic treated wood were reported last week by the Environmental Working Group (EWG). The report, "All Hands on Deck," suggests that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) may have erred in reassuring the public earlier this year about the safety of existing backyard structures.


The EPA has banned the use of CCA in all playground equipment as of January 2004. (Photo courtesy Beyond Pesticides)
For more than 20 years the wood industry has infused green wood with chromated copper arsenate (CCA), a wood preservative that contains arsenic, to kill bugs and prevent rot. In February, the EPA announced that the wood treatment industry had agreed to a voluntary "phase out" of the cancer causing, arsenic based chemicals used to pressure treat the wood in playsets and backyard decks.

The EPA stated that it did "not believe there is any reason to remove or replace arsenic treated structures." But new data show that consumers with old wood structures remain at risk from arsenic that wipes off the wood surface. Children who play on arsenic treated playsets and decks are at particularly high risk.

Since last November, consumers across the country have tested 263 decks, playsets, and picnic tables, and the arsenic contaminated soil beneath them, via an at cost testing kit sold through EWG's website, The samples were analyzed by the University of North Carolina - Asheville's Environmental Quality Institute.

The results of the consumer testing program show:


In the U.S., inorganic arsenic is primarily used to preserve wood, such as this pressure treated lumber. (Photo courtesy American Wood Preservers Institute)
Although most uses of arsenic wood treatments will be phased out by 2004, an estimated 90 percent of existing outdoor structures are made of arsenic treated wood. Arsenic is on the EPA's list of chemicals known to cause cancer in humans.

According to the National Academy of Sciences, exposure to arsenic causes lung, bladder and skin cancer in humans, and is suspected as a cause of kidney, prostate and nasal passage cancer. A number of studies have shown that arsenic sticks to children's hands when they play on treated wood, and is absorbed through the skin and ingested when they put their hands in their mouths.

On Friday, an EPA advisory panel met to discuss the agency's proposed method for assessing cancer risks faced by children playing on arsenic treated wood structures.

"The EPA's advice has misled millions of consumers about the safety of existing arsenic treated wood," said Jane Houlihan, vice president for research at the EWG. "It's time that the Agency act to protect and inform consumers."


The CCA phase out announced in February will not affect the nation's 130 million utility poles treated with CCA and other toxic substances. (Photo courtesy Beyond Pesticides)
Last month, the American Wood Preservers Institute circulated a press release regarding the findings of the Florida Physicians Arsenic Workgroup, a six physician panel appointed last year at the request of the Florida Department of Health to study the use of CCA. The panel concluded that normal use of CCA treated wood in playgrounds is not harmful to children.

"The amount of arsenic that could be absorbed from playground soil and CCA treated wood is not significant compared to natural sources and will not result in detectable arsenic intake," the panel wrote in their report.

The wood products industry said the report supports their assertions that wood treated with CCA is safe for a variety of uses, including playground equipment.

"After a year spent reviewing all aspects of CCA treated wood, this expert panel of doctors came to a simple conclusion - CCA treated wood is safe for use in playsets," said Parker Brugge, executive director of the Treated Wood Council and president of the American Wood Preservers Institute. "Treated wood has been used safely for nearly 70 years. Based on this report, parents can be assured that children can safely play on recreational equipment made of preserved wood."


Arsenic from CCA treated wood can leach into groundwater, contaminating drinking water supplies. (Photo courtesy U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)
However, the Florida Physicians Arsenic Workgroup has not released its supporting data, including lists of the medical literature the panel reviewed or the calculations used to determine the safety of CCA treated wood.

Families that remain concerned about the safety of their decks and playsets can lower their arsenic exposures by sealing the wood at least every six months, and washing hands after contacting the wood. They can also replace boards in high traffic areas such as handrails and decking with arsenic free alternatives.

"Consumers had to take it upon themselves to conduct a testing program that should have been done long ago," said EWG analyst Sean Gray. "Now consumers are taking steps to protect their families, as they learn that arsenic levels on backyard decks and playsets remain high for 20 years."