Toxic playgrounds?

Despite an agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency to phase out the use of pressure-treated lumber in playground equipment, the pesticide-treated wood continues to be sold. Unwitting consumers could use this wood for decks or backyard planters, where the pesticide can leach into the soil or get on children¡?s hands. Composite wood, cedar and redwood, while more expensive, are non-toxic alternatives. JENNIFER LACEY explains why.

Imagine this scenarioƒnƒ{ƒnit is a bright, sunny day at your local park. You¡?re sitting on a bench watching your son or daughter laughing and playing with their friends on the wooden playground set. Did you every stop to think that that same playground equipment may have been treated with a pesticide to prevent decay and insect damage? Almost all wooden playground equipment produced until recently has been treated with a pesticide called Chromated Copper Arsenate (CCA). Arsenic is a known human carcinogen that occurs naturally in rocks, soil, water and air. Arsenic can be released into the environment through natural occurrences such as volcanic activity, erosion of rocks, forest fires, or through human action. Even agricultural practices like mining also contribute to the amount of arsenic that is emitted into our environment. According to information released by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), approximately 90 percent of industrial arsenic in the United States is currently used as a wood preservative, but it can also be used in dyes and metals. Chromated Copper Arsenate is a water-borne chemical preservative that contains three known pesticidal compounds: arsenic, chromium and copper. CCA is primarily used for the long-term protection of wood against wear and the infestation/damage caused by insects and forms of fungi. The application of preservatives on wood helps extend its product life. Residue from this cancer-causing pesticide can be easily spread to any child by hand-to-mouth contact. Following discussions with the EPA, the lumber industry came to an agreement in February 2002 to phase out the use of CCA-treated wood in playground equipment by December 2003. A report was submitted to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) in early 2003 which analyzed the observations and research of several CPSC scientists. The scientists found that some children may face an increased risk of developing lung and/or bladder cancer during the course of their lifetime from playing on CCA-treated playground equipment. This risk is in addition to the risk of developing cancer due to other factors over one¡?s lifetime. Following this study, however, the CPSC voted unanimously to deny a request to ban arsenic-treated lumber, stating that the current ban was not necessary since most manufacturers had already ceased using treated wood. But several leading environmental organizations, including the Environmental Working Group (EWG), believe that the commission has underestimated this cancer risk to children. ¡§We know that arsenic in drinking water is dangerous for kids, but what we found was that the arsenic in lumber is an even greater risk. In less than 10 days, an average 5-year-old playing on an arsenic-treated playset would exceed the lifetime cancer risk considered acceptable under federal pesticide laws,¡? says Renee Sharp, an analyst for the EWG, based out of Washington, D.C. The New York State Environmental Conservation Law has been amended. Section 37-0109, prohibits the construction of new public playgrounds with lumber treated with CCA. It also requires existing public playgrounds made with this lumber to be maintained in a manner that minimizes the leaching of CCA into the ground. So, how can you tell if the wood playset in your backyard/local playground has been treated with CCA? Wood that has been freshly treated has a greenish tint, which usually fades over time. According to the EPA, if your playset has not been constructed with either redwood or cedar, then it is very likely that it has been made from a CCA-treated wood. The EPA suggests the application of a coating product (oil-based, semi-transparent stains) to pressure-treated wood at least once a year to help reduce the amount of CCA emitted. If you think your child may regularly play on a playset that might have been made from CCA treated wood, or has been briefly exposed to one, there are prevention steps that you can take. Always wash your child¡?s hands thoroughly after they have been in contact with any wood, especially prior to eating and drinking. Since benches and picnic tables can also be made from CCA-treated wood, food should never come in contact with them. There are other non-toxic, alternative materials to turn to when choosing playground equipment for your children. An option to consider are playsets made from naturally durable woods such as cedar, locust, or redwood. Non-wood playsets made out of plastic or plastic lumber are growing in popularity since not only are they often made from recycled materials, but are also highly resistant to decay.


Resources: For further information, contact the following: ¡XUnited States Environmental Protection Agency,

¡XNew York State Department of Environmental Conservation,

¡XConsumer Product Safety Commission,