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CHILDREN EXPOSED
TO POISONOUS WOOD
IN PLAYGROUNDS

The concern about chromated copper arsenate (CCA)-treated wood is much larger than parents’ worries about poisonous playgrounds. In fact, the research and recent publicity surrounding the issue actually stemmed from — and is focused on — the waste industry.

“When we the started the research here in 1996, it was all based on waste,” says Timothy Townsend, one of the lead researchers studying the effects of CCA-treated wood and associate professor with the Gainesville-based University of Florida department of environmental engineering and science. “It’s a big deal for C&D (construction and demolition) recyclers. And it’s a potentially big deal to municipal disposers. There weren’t any issues in terms of contamination of soils, kids and playgrounds.”

Approximately five years ago, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP), Tallahassee, decided to test the ash coming from a co-generation plant in south Florida, according to Bill Hinkley, chief of the bureau of solid and hazardous waste for the FDEP. The industrial facility, which was built next to a sugar mill, had two large wood-fire boilers designed to burn wood to produce electricity from the high-pressure steam, and burn off the water using the low-pressure steam.

The company was taking the waste from the sugar industry, burning the bagasse, which is the fiber that remains after extracting the sugar from the cane, then applying the ash onto the muck fields because it is high in phosphorous, potassium and other nutrients.

To keep the boilers operating at capacity, the company decided to burn wood waste during its slower periods, and Florida’s nearby Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties were encouraged to take advantage of this opportunity to recover their wood waste.

The facility wanted to continue spreading its ash on the sugar cane fields, but the FDEP was concerned there might be lead-based paint in the recycled wood. To ensure lead levels weren’t too high, the FDEP asked the facility to test the ash, Hinkley says. “When we got the data back, we found 400 to 500 parts per million of arsenic and high levels of chromium in the ash.”

Current federal primary drinking water standards limit arsenic to 50 parts per billion. And U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) toxicity characteristic leaching procedure (TCLP) limits are 5 milligrams per liter (mg/l).

“This drove us to ask the Florida Center for Solid and Hazardous Waste [Gainesville, Fla.] for help in researching the issue,” Hinkley says. “Eventually the arsenic was traced to CCA-treated wood.” And Townsend and Helena Solo-Gabriele of the University of Miami, teamed up to tackle the CCA-treated wood research from a waste-to-energy, mulch and disposal perspective. Their research is funded by the center.

“Our research grew through a series of studies to determine how much CCA was out there, the potential impacts and how much will be out there in the future,” Townsend says.

Now, five years after the initial research began, concern about CCA-treated wood in playgrounds has made its way into mainstream media.

“When we asked the center to take on the research, we asked them to examine four areas,” Hinkley says, “ash, mulch, landfilling and soil contamination under decks. We asked the center to test for soil contamination under decks because the FDEP operates 150 parks, and most of them have boardwalks and decks [made from CCA-treated wood].”

Data from the deck studies showed average arsenic concentrations in below-deck soils to be 28 milligrams per kilogram of soil (mg/kg) — far above federal and state arsenic restrictions.

EPA soil screening level (SSL) limits for arsenic are 0.4 mg/kg. Florida’s soil clean-up target levels are 0.8 mg/kg for residential areas and 3.7 mg/kg for industrial areas, among the most stringent standards in the country.

“An energetic reporter at the St. Petersburg Times noticed that playground equipment also is made from CCA-treated wood,” Hinkley says, “and the newspaper hired a consultant to sample soil under playground structures.”

“The arsenic levels in playgrounds were higher than Florida’s clean-up target levels, which prompted a huge wave of concern,” Hinkley adds.

But because playgrounds don’t fall under the FDEP’s jurisdiction, the Florida Department of Health and the state legislature now are attempting to address the issue.

Written by: Patricia-Anne Tom


EPA wants arsenic warnings on wood. The Consumer Product Safety Commission also will seek public comment on a petition to ban CCA-treated wood.

Amid calls for increased regulation, the Environmental Protection Agency recently announced that it has approved a plan calling for the pressure-treated wood industry to better inform buyers that its product contains arsenic.

New labels and signs in home improvement and hardware stores such as Home Depot and Lowe's should make consumers more aware of the risks of buying wood infused with chromated copper arsenate, or CCA, according to the EPA and industry spokesmen.

By fall the EPA-required labeling should appear on every piece of CCA-treated lumber. It will warn buyers that they should wear goggles, gloves and a dust mask when cutting or sawing. The labels also advise people never to burn pressure-treated wood.

For the first time, the label on CCA-treated lumber would specifically say, "This product contains arsenic," EPA spokesman David Deegan said.

Environmental activists scoffed at the EPA announcement, noting that a voluntary labeling program initiated in the 1980s has not stopped arsenic from leaking out of the wood at public playgrounds.

"Better labeling on a toxic product doesn't help," said Laura Chapin of the Environmental Working Group. "It hasn't worked for 15 years, and all of a sudden it's going to work?"

The Environmental Working Group and the Healthy Building Network have petitioned the Consumer Product Safety Commission to ban use of CCA, a powerful pesticide that is supposed to protect the wood against termites, beetles and humidity.

They said a 1990 study by the commission underestimated the risk of cancer from CCA by failing to account for the risks of the treated wood -- frequently used in playgrounds, decks, railings, picnic tables, fences and docks -- rubbing off on skin or leaching into places where it can be ingested.

On Tuesday, the commission took the first step toward the ban by agreeing, on a 3-0 vote, to let the public comment on the petition by publishing it in the Federal Register. Based on those comments and on additional research, the commission could vote to begin rulemaking on banning CCA-treated wood from playgrounds, spokesman Scott Wolfson said. "The commission has many options," he said. "We're at the early stages of the process."

Mel Pine, a spokesman for the American Wood Preservers Institute, said the industry is not surprised at the Consumer Product Safety Commission vote and recognizes its interest in the issue, but he declined to comment further on that development.

Pine said the industry "fully accepts" the EPA labeling program. Institute executives have promised "rapid implementation" of the labels to ensure the products are handled safely by buyers and builders.

The industry discussed the new labels at an EPA sponsored meeting in the Washington area last month.

Arsenic-treated wood has been banned in other countries, but the industry has fought off restrictions in California, Minnesota and elsewhere, even though the wood has enough toxic chemicals to rank as a toxic waste.

Now lawmakers in the U.S. Senate and in Florida are seeking new restrictions on arsenic-treated wood. Florida regulators want the wood classified as a hazardous waste. Florida has declared a moratorium on any new arsenic-treated lumber in state parks, and a bill pending in next year's Legislature would ban arsenic-treated wood in public playgrounds. The $4-billion-a-year industry also faces several lawsuits.

Since the EPA last reviewed CCA wood 19 years ago, new studies show that arsenic comes out of the wood into the soil and onto people's hands. One Florida arsenic expert says children can pick up enough arsenic from routine play on wooden playgrounds during childhood to pose an unacceptable health risk.

Wood-treatment industry officials dispute those claims and say the amount of arsenic leaking out of the wood poses little concern.

As part of a special review in the 1980s, the EPA considered banning CCA but concluded that the economic impact would be too great. Instead it called for voluntary labeling of the product to warn buyers to use precautions when working with it.

The industry barely complied with the voluntary program. Even the lumber that was tagged did not spell out what chemical it contained. The EPA never enforced the agreement.

The consumer information sheets only turned up in stores recently, after the St. Petersburg Times published a special report about CCA wood in March.

Deegan said the EPA will be more active in monitoring the new labels, relying on reports from its regional offices as well as state agencies such as the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. And industry officials promise they will do a better job complying with labeling requirements.

However, at the EPA-sponsored public meeting on the proposed labeling system last month, environmentalists and some state health officials said the government should do more to prevent people from being exposed to arsenic from CCA wood.

In late October, the EPA plans to hold a public meeting of one of its science advisory panels to better calculate children's potential exposure in playgrounds. Next year the EPA expects to release a comprehensive review of CCA-treated wood that could lead to more regulatory changes.

Arsenic has become a hot topic in light of the Bush administration's decision to suspend until early next year former President Clinton's proposal to tighten the standard for arsenic in drinking water.

"This is the second bad decision on arsenic from the Bush EPA in the last six months," complained Richard Wiles of the Environmental Working Group.

WOOD WARNINGS

The five basic messages proposed by the EPA for the labels on CCA-treated wood:

Caution: Arsenic is in the pesticide applied to this wood.

Never burn treated wood.

Wear dust mask and goggles when cutting or sanding wood. Wear gloves when working with wood.

Written by: Graig Pittman


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