Washington, DC, Nov. 8, 2001 - Nationwide sampling in 13 metropolitan areas found harmful levels of cancer-causing arsenic on the surface of "pressure-treated" wood purchased at Home Depot and Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse stores, according to a report released today.
"The Poisonwood Rivals" by Environmental Working Group (EWG) and Healthy Building Network (HBN) reports that an area of arsenic-treated wood the size of a four-year-old's hand contains an average of 120 times the amount of arsenic allowed in a 6 ounce glass of water by the U.S. EPA. The highest contamination was found in a North Carolina sample at 500 times the acceptable safety level.
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. Based on the average arsenic level detected in lumber from 18 Home Depot and Lowe's stores, EWG estimated that one of every 500 children who regularly play on playground equipment or decks made from pressure-treated wood can be expected to develop cancer later in life as a result of this exposure.
"Home Depot and Lowe's both tout their concern for the environment, but even with alternatives readily available they continue to sell lumber full of a chemical that causes cancer," said Jane Houlihan, EWG's Research Director. "We found arsenic levels that were off the charts all over the country, which means that off the shelf this product is unsafe for children. The EPA should ban the use of arsenic as a pesticide, and Home Depot and Lowe's should stop selling arsenic-treated lumber to families."
Arsenic isn't just poisonous in the short term, it causes cancer in the long term, which is why it has come under increasing scientific scrutiny and restriction. It is the only known human carcinogen currently approved for use as a pesticide. 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.
Manufacturers treat green wood with heavy doses of arsenic to keep out bugs and prevent rot. A 12-foot section of CCA-treated wood contains about an ounce of arsenic, or enough poison to kill 250 people.
Industry's answer to public concern about arsenic-treated lumber has been to tout voluntary public awareness campaigns, which have been a dismal failure for 15 years and continue to be ineffective today. During EWG and HBN's retail sampling, none of the 18 stores we went to offered our testers any consumer information on arsenic-treated lumber.
Furthermore, the consumer information from industry ignores children and families, the most at-risk group. It tells contractors to wear face masks and gloves, but says nothing to families about playing or eating on arsenic-treated wood, what happens to the wood when it gets wet, avoiding cross-contamination with toys, the effect on pets, and other household hazards.
Arsenic-treated lumber is already banned or strictly regulated in Japan, Germany, Australia and some other countries. EWG and HBN have petitioned the Consumer Product Safety Commission to ban the use of arsenic-treated lumber in playground equipment. The EPA is currently in the midst of an expedited risk assessment for children for arsenic-treated lumber, and as part of that assessment EWG gave a presentation to EPA's Scientific Advisory Panel (SAP) on October 24.