Hidden Arsenic in Older Play Sets

From: Robina Suwol
Date: 30 Nov 2003
Time: 21:47:50
Remote Name:


November 25, 2003
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 lung cancer.
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 equipment."
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 regulatory decision-making."
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.
Posted by:
Robina Suwol
California Safe Schools


Last changed: March 14, 2006