Results from the largest–ever testing program for arsenic–treated wood, by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), show that the public remains at risk from high levels of arsenic leaching out of pressure–treated wood in older decks, playsets, and picnic tables.
Study findings reported in EWG’s “All Hands on Deck” indicate that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was wrong in reassuring the public about the safety of existing backyard structures. When the Agency announced that the wood treatment industry had agreed to a voluntary “phase out” of the cancer–causing, arsenic–based pesticide used to pressure-treat the wood in playsets and backyard decks, EPA stated that it did “not believe there is any reason to remove or replace arsenic–treated structures.” [Emphasis added.] But new data show that consumers with old wood structures remain at risk from arsenic that easily 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, www.ewg.org. The samples were analyzed by the University of North Carolina – Asheville’s Environmental Quality Institute. The results of the consumer testing program show:
1. Older decks and playsets (seven to 15 years old) expose people to just as much arsenic on the wood surface as newer structures (less than one year old). The amount of arsenic that testers wiped off a small area of wood about the size of a four–year–old’s handprint (100 square centimeters) typically far exceeds what EPA allows in a glass of water under the Safe Drinking Water Act standard.
2. Arsenic in the soil from two of every five backyards or parks tested exceeds the U.S. EPA’s Superfund cleanup level of 20 parts per million (ppm).
3. Commercial wood sealants lose their effectiveness at trapping arsenic after about 6 months, thus providing no long–term protection from arsenic exposure.
“Consumers had to take it upon themselves to conduct a testing program that should have been done long ago. And 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,” said EWG Analyst Sean Gray.
Arsenic isn’t just poisonous in the short term, it causes cancer in the long term. Arsenic is on EPA’s short 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. Numerous studies show 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.
For more than 20 years the wood industry has infused green wood with heavy doses of arsenic to kill bugs and prevent rot. 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.
EWG’s consumer testing results come as an EPA advisory panel prepares to meet Friday 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. “It’s time that the Agency act to protect and inform consumers,” she added.
Short of replacing their decks and playsets, families can lower their arsenic exposures by sealing the wood at least every six months, and washing hands thoroughly after contacting the wood. They can also replace boards in high traffic areas such as handrails and decking with arsenic–free alternatives.
POISONED PLAYGROUNDS! HEALTHY BUILDING NETWORK, ENVIRONMENTAL WORKING GROUP PETITION CONSUMER PRODUCT SAFETY COMMISSION TO BAN SALE OF ARSENIC-TREATED LUMBER FOR PLAYGROUNDS
GROUPS URGE SAFETY ASSESSMENT FOR OTHER CONSUMER USES
Playground Guide and Arsenic-Free Lumber Locator Available to Consumers
The Healthy Building Network (HBN) and the Environmental Working Group (EWG) petitioned the Consumer Product Safety Commission to ban arsenic-treated wood in playground equipment and to review its safety for use in other consumer items. The petition was sent in conjunction with the groups' release of their report, "Poisoned Playgrounds: Arsenic in Pressure Treated Wood."
Virtually all of the lumber sold for outdoor use in the U.S. is pressure-treated and injected with toxins to preserve the wood and prevent bugs. The most common wood preservative and pesticide used for this purpose is chromated copper arsenate (CCA), which is 22 percent pure arsenic. A 12-foot section of pressure-treated lumber contains about an ounce of arsenic, or enough to kill 250 people. The U.S. wood products industry is the world's largest consumer of the poison, using half of all arsenic produced worldwide. Arsenic is banned for all agricultural and food uses, but it has a specific exemption for use in wood under the federal pesticide law.
"We know that arsenic in drinking water is dangerous for children, but what we found was that the arsenic in lumber is an even greater risk," said EWG Analyst Renee Sharp, principal author of the report. "In less than two weeks, an average five-year-old playing on an arsenic-treated playset would exceed the lifetime cancer risk considered acceptable under federal pesticide law." Paul Bogart of the Healthy Building Network added, "Today we are asking the Bush Administration to take action, but we are not waiting for them to act. Our website provides the public with some basic tools and information, so that ultimately companies like Lowes and Home Depot will be compelled to stop selling arsenic wood and start stocking the arsenic-free products."
Earlier this month the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ordered a fast-track review of cancer risk from arsenic-treated wood. The agency has not said when the risk assessment will be made public. In addition to the CPSC petition asking for an outright ban, HBN and EWG are urging retailers and playground equipment manufacturers to switch to alternative types of wood. For now, among the things consumers can do to reduce the risk of arsenic from pressure-treated wood:
Use a non-toxic sealant to seal arsenic-treated wood structures every year. Don't let children eat at arsenic-treated picnic tables, or at least cover the table with a coated tablecloth. Make sure children wash their hands after playing on arsenic-treated surfaces, particularly before eating.
Written by: Environmental Working Group
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