All Hands on Deck

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In February 2002 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a phase out of the pesticide CCA, or chromated copper arsenate, an arsenic based chemical mixture used to preserve so-called “pressure-treated” lumber. CCA is 22 percent arsenic by weight, and the Agency noted when it announced the ban that “arsenic is a known human carcinogen.” Children who play on arsenic-treated play structures and decks are at particularly high risk.

Over 90 percent of all outdoor wooden structures in the United States are made with arsenic-treated lumber. Under the terms of the phase out, all of these structures will remain in place. Indeed, thousands more will be added to the human environment up until the final phase out date for the pesticide of January 2004. With literally millions of arsenic-treated decks, playsets, picnic tables and playgrounds in place across the country, several important questions remain unanswered: What level of risk do old arsenic-treated structures pose? And if the risk is similar to the new wood being banned, what should be done to protect people, particularly children, using structures made with this commonplace material?

According to the EPA there is no need to do anything. At the time of the phase out, EPA asserted that it “does not believe there is any reason to remove or replace arsenic-treated structures, including decks or playground equipment” (EPA, 2002).

But EPA had no science in hand on which to base this statement. Instead, EPA’s advice is merely a policy judgment presented as scientific fact that has misled millions of consumers about the safety of existing structures made with arsenic-treated wood. The wood preserving industry claimed that old CCA-impregnated wood leaches minimal amounts of arsenic, but the EPA had no other evidence to support its view that older arsenic-treated structures were any safer than structures made from the new arsenic-treated lumber that it had just banned.

Even more importantly, EPA’s advice is wrong. Data from an ongoing arsenic wood testing program – the largest of its kind ever conducted – show that older, arsenic-treated wood structures expose people to just as much arsenic as new structures.

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