If you’ve been feeling guilty that you can’t bring the kids to the park as often as they’d like, take heart. You may have reduced their risk of getting cancer. That’s because for decades, almost all wooden playground equipment has been made from pressure-treated wood containing chromated copper arsenate, or CCA, a pesticide that contains arsenic. While the treatment helps the wood stand up to termites, humidity and beetles, the arsenic in it can leach out for years, posing a health hazard to children who can get arsenic residue on their hands, and then put their hands in their mouths. The popular lumber is used for most playground equipment, as well as decks and picnic tables, because the treatment prevents rot — a necessity for wood used on outdoor products. But the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) says that children could face an increased lifetime risk of developing lung or bladder cancer from using playground equipment made of wood treated with arsenic. It has also been found that the arsenic injected into the wood can leach into the soil around it. It is for these reasons that CCA-treated lumber will hopefully be phased out of production by December of this year. While there is strong evidence that arsenic from CCA-treated wood can leach out for years, the amount of arsenic drops significantly as the wood ages, so the Environmental Protection Agency will not advise homeowners to remove existing decks or other constructs that are made with the wood. This is not news to environmental experts. Since the 1970s, environmental groups have been urging a ban on CCA, and the EPA did ban most arsenic pesticides years ago, but made an exception for pressure-treated wood. In addition, Connecticut health officials issued a warning three years ago that children who frequently play on CCA-treated playgrounds come into contact with a major source of arsenic. But the manufacturers didn’t agree to start phasing out the production of the lumber for residential use until last year. Representatives of the wood-treatment industry insist that CCA-treated wood is safe if dried and used properly, but they admit that because of competition, most plants do not make sure the wood is dry before shipping it. Redwood and cedar do not pose a threat, as they do not require pesticides. For those who already have structures on their property that are made of the treated wood, the EPA offers the following safety tips: • Sealants: Using paint or stain on a deck or play equipment can stop some of the leaching, and immobilize many of the loose particles. Oil-based stains should be used because they penetrate the wood and don’t require sanding or scraping, which would stir up the arsenic. Urethane-type sealant should be re-applied every one to two years. Note: water-based sealants do not seem to help. • Covers: Put tablecloths over picnic tables. Do not serve or cut food directly on the wood. • Avoid Bleach: Bleach and other oxidizing cleaners will release arsenic and convert the chromium in CCA into a more toxic chemical, hexavalent chromium, which was the topic of the movie “Erin Brockovich”. • Wash Hands: Thoroughly washing hands with soap and water immediately after touching treated wood will help remove chemical residue. • Clean Shoes: Keep a towel by the door for children to wipe their feet on after they have played on the equipment or have walked on the deck. • Store Toys Elsewhere: Don’t store children’s toys under decks, and don’t allow children or animals to play there. • Don’t Burn, Saw or Sand the Wood. All of these actions will release toxic chemicals or sawdust. If you must sand or saw the wood, wear gloves and a dust mask, dispose of all sawdust and debris, and avoid bringing air-borne sawdust indoors. After working with the wood, and before eating, drinking, toileting or using tobacco products, wash exposed areas of the body thoroughly. • Wash Clothes. Because preservatives and sawdust accumulate on clothes, they should be washed before reuse. Wash separately from other household clothing. • Turn the Soil: Till the soil near play equipment and decks, and cover it with topsoil or virgin mulch (which has no CCA-treated wood in it). Because arsenic stays close to the soil’s surface, this will reduce the risk.
In addition, the Washington, D.C.-based environmental research organization, Environmental Working Group, has teamed up with an independent lab to offer arsenic testing kits to the public, at cost, through its website, www.ewg.org. Keep in mind, however, that the ban on CCA-treated wood is merely focused on removing the threat of arsenic. All pressure-treated wood contains chemicals necessary for preserving the lumber for long periods of outdoor use. “I don’t want the public misled to think that this ban has automatically created something good,” says David Engert, owner of The Great Outdoor Toy Company, whose main office is in Westport, CT. “Any wood that is intended for outdoor use will need to be treated, and will therefore need to contain chemicals. And all chemicals carry risks.” Engert’s company uses only redwood for its products, so no preservatives or chemicals are required. For those who need to choose lumber for play equipment or other home projects, Engert advises, “Do your homework, know your options, and just make sure to use common sense.”