Hidden Arsenic in Older Play Sets
From: Robina Suwol
Date: 30 Nov 2003
Remote Name: 188.8.131.52
November 25, 2003
By ELIZABETH OLSON
WASHINGTON, Nov. 24 - The Janak family's outdoor deck was looking more than a
little worn two years ago, so they decided to sand and stain it. What the
couple did not know was that sanding the pressure-treated lumber was not just
creating sawdust, but also scattering particles of arsenic in the air.
The deck of their home in Buffalo was a favorite play spot for their daughter,
Emily, 6, who has Down syndrome and often chewed on the railing. Shortly after
the sanding, Emily became irritable, her hand started to curve in and she lost
the ability to pick things up. Her mother, Laurette Janak, thought she might
be having a recurrence of childhood leukemia.
"The second doctor ran a test for heavy metals," Mrs. Janak said. "It came
back with a high level of arsenic. It took about five months to get it out of
her system, but Emily still has neurological problems."
When Mrs. Janak saw an article by the Environmental Working Group linking wood
treated with arsenic-based pesticide to cancer in children, she contacted the
group, a nonprofit advocacy organization in Washington. This year, she
testified at a hearing of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, urging the
panel to order the removal of decks, picnic tables and play equipment built of
lumber treated with chromated copper arsenate.
The commission and the Environmental Protection Agency reached an agreement
with the lumber industry to phase out wood treated with chromated copper
arsenate for consumer uses starting Dec. 30. For decades, the industry used
the arsenic treatment on wood to prevent damage from decay and insects, but it
is no longer an approved chemical for residential use.
Even so, that arrangement did not answer how to handle pesticide-treated play
sets and playground equipment. Manufacturers have already voluntarily switched
to other materials for playground gyms, but tens of thousands of older
structures sit in backyards and local parks across the country.
In February 2002, the E.P.A. concluded that the pressure-treated wood did not
pose such unreasonable public risk that it required ordering the removal of
playground and backyard structures. The agency urged parents to have children
wash their hands after playing on such structures, and to prevent food from
coming into contact with the wood.
To find an answer for existing structures, the agency started an 18-month
study in August to test a dozen sealants to find which is the most effective
in preventing arsenic from leaching out of posts, boards and beams.
Last week, agency officials said they had good early results with an oil-based
semitransparent sealant. But James Jones, director of the agency's Office of
Pesticide Programs, said it was still too early to endorse any one product.
"What might look good at three months might not be as effective after six
months," Mr. Jones said. "We want to have confidence that whatever product we
recommend will be effective over the long term."
This month, the agency released a draft study of the risks to children from
exposure to pesticide-treated wood. The study, which will be presented to an
independent scientific advisory panel on Dec. 3 and 4, concluded that children
between the ages of 1 and 6 faced an increased risk of cancer from contact
with the treated wood.
Children in that age group normally face a risk of cancer of one in a million,
according to the agency. Exposure to treated wood, the draft study found,
raised that to 1 in 100,000. Arsenic residue, which enters the system when
children put their hands in their mouths, has been associated with bladder and
The Environmental Working Group said that its research found that 1 in 500
children who played on the treated play sets three times a week could be
expected to develop cancer from those exposures.
"Two government reports have shown that arsenic causes cancer in people," said
Richard Wiles, senior vice president of the group. "There are some real risks
here. It's safe to say that some kids will get cancer from playing on this
Such pressure-treated wood has been safely used for more than 70 years,
countered the Wood Preservative Science Council, an industry lobbying group.
The E.P.A.'s preliminary risk assessment, the council asserted, "does not
fully reflect the best scientific information and is an insufficient tool for
Sealant would have to be applied to arsenic-treated decks or playgrounds as
many as three or four times yearly to be effective, Mr. Wiles said, though the
continuing E.P.A. study has yet to reach a conclusion on the number of
applications needed. "How many people will do that?"
Another problem, Mr. Wiles said, is that the arsenic leaches into the soil,
and that issue is not being addressed in the study. The Environmental Working
Group examined 300 households nationwide that took swabs of their decks and
play equipment as well as soil samples. The group found that more than half of
the soil samples had arsenic levels above those allowed for federally
designated Superfund cleanup sites, Mr. Wiles said.
California Safe Schools
Last changed: March 14, 2006