Written by Lisa Fuhrman for the March 2003 edition of Healthy Times:
The lovely wooden outdoor play-set you lovingly bought for your children may actually expose them to arsenic—transmitted right from their hands to their mouths! Exposure to arsenic can be deadly. According to Hal Stratton, chairman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), children can develop a lifetime risk of lung or bladder cancer from using playground equipment that contains arsenic. Arsenic also increases risk of other cancers, such as skin cancer.
Over 90 percent of all outdoor wooden structures in the United States, including the deck and porch on your home, contain arsenic because most wood used in this type of construction has been treated with a preservative and pesticide called chromate copper arsenate (CCA). CCA contains arsenic, chromium, and copper. It protects wood from rotting and other damage from insects and microbial agents. In addition to decks and porches, CCA-treated lumber has been used in outdoor railings, picnic tables, fences, and docks, since the 1930's.The majority of the wood used in residential settings since the 1970's is CCA-treated wood.
Unfortunately, arsenic does not safely dissipate over time. The arsenic levels found on surfaces of treated-wood structures more than twenty years old are similar to those found on treated-wood structures less than a year old. As a result, tests have shown that arsenic levels in soil near or under the treated-wood structures can be many times higher than the cleanup standard at Superfund toxic waste sites!
Wood preservatives containing arsenic have been increasingly targeted as unsafe by many advocacy groups. "Wipe tests" showed that the amount of arsenic coming off the wood in many cases exceeded what levels were allowed in drinking water by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by at least three times. In some cases, the amount was 250 times the amount allowed in drinking water!
In 1986, the EPA banned most arsenic pesticides but allowed the use of CCA to continue in pressure-treated wood. The agency classified it as a "restricted-use" pesticide to protect factory workers, while manufacturers agreed to voluntarily distribute consumer "fact sheets" about its use. Due to pressure by advocacy groups, the EPA is producing a report on the risks of the pressure-treated wood, which is expected in late 2003.
Fortunately, the Consumer Product Safety Commission is holding a public meeting in March to consider banning the arsenic-based preservative in playground equipment. In 2002, the preservative manufacturers agreed with the EPA to stop using the chemical in new wooden play-sets by December 2003.
It is difficult to distinguish CCAtreated wood from non-CCA-treated wood. A call to the manufacturer might help to determine if your play-set contains CCA or not. If you are not sure whether or not it contains CCA, you should assume it does.
Since children can get arsenic residue from the treated wood on their hands and then put their hands into their mouths, researchers recommend that once a child has finished playing on a play-set, caregivers should wash the child's hands thoroughly with soap and water. They also recommend that children not eat while on the play-set.
Based on limited data, some groups suggest applying certain penetrating coatings, such as oil-based, semi-transparent stains, on a regular basis (once a year or every other year, depending upon wear and weathering). This may reduce the amount of arsenic that comes out of the wood. Unfortunately, research data is too limited to know for sure if this actually helps. If you decide to remove your CCA-treated wood play-set, dispose of the wood properly. The EPA states that CCA-treated wood should never be burned in open fires, stoves, fireplaces, or residential boilers. Contact EPA (www.epa.gov) or your state or local solid waste management offices to receive instructions on how to dispose of it.
The EPA has registered a number of non-arsenic-containing preservatives to pressure-treat wood for consumer use, including copper boron azole (CBA).Wood treated with this preservative is sometimes available at retail outlets and is sold under the name "Wolmanized Natural Select." CBA-treated wood costs more because it contains more copper (which is expensive). While CBA is now common in Japan and Europe, it is still going through some investigation in the U.S.
If you are planning to purchase a play-set, you have a few good options. You can find natural cedar wood and redwood play-sets that are not chemically treated. You also can buy metal swing sets or a combination metal swing set with a redwood deck. There are also play-sets made with PVC (low-maintenance plastic) that do not contain CCA. Bottom line—don't put a treated-wood deck, porch, fence, or other product around your home. If you already have treated wood around your home, give it multiple coats of oil-based paint or get rid of it.