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Study Suggests Greater Cancer Risk in Arsenic-Treated Lumber

Health: Environmental group says the wood used for play sets, decks is a threat to children.

November 08, 2001|ELIZABETH SHOGREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — A study of commonly used pressure-treated lumber purchased at home improvement stores nationwide suggests that the risk of arsenic exposure from the boards is higher than previously feared, an environmental organization said Wednesday.

The Environmental Working Group, in conjunction with public interest groups in 13 metropolitan areas and a government-approved lab, said it detected levels of arsenic high enough that one in 500 children who regularly play on arsenic-treated decks or playground equipment would be likely to develop lung or bladder cancer later in life.

The release of the study comes just a week after the Bush administration embraced a tougher standard for arsenic in drinking water and as two government agencies are in the midst of assessing the risks posed by arsenic-treated wood.

"The residue data certainly enhances our understanding of the degree to which arsenic leaches out of treated wood," said Jim Jones, deputy director of the Environmental Protection Agency's pesticide office.

But Mel Pine, an industry spokesman, accused the environmental group of "repackaging its questionable data in ways calculated to alarm the public," and denied that arsenic-treated wood poses a danger to children. Scientists working for the industry have assured him that the product is safe, he added.

In recent years, scientists have tested playground equipment and other structures built from wood pressure-treated with the pesticide chromated copper arsenate to make it resistant to insects and decay. Recent news accounts have highlighted the risks associated with products treated with the widely used pesticide, but the Environmental Working Group's study is the first to test newly treated lumber.

Its findings make the big retailers--who stock arsenic-treated wood as their mainstay lumber for decks, wooden play equipment, fences, boardwalks and other outdoor uses--all the more eager for the EPA's guidance.

"I would love to hear from EPA," said Don Harrison, a spokesman for Home Depot, one of the retailers targeted by the study. "We've been beaten up for the past year, and frankly I don't think it's a fair situation."

Within six months, the EPA expects to publish its assessment of the risks posed to children by decks and playground equipment made of arsenic-treated wood. The Consumer Product Safety Commission, working with the EPA, plans to test playgrounds to determine if equipment built with arsenic-treated wood is safe for children. Ten years ago, after a much narrower study, the commission found no such health risk.

Those who have monitored the controversy predict that arsenic-treated wood is on the way out. They believe that the combination of mounting scientific evidence, emerging availability of alternative chemicals, growing public awareness of the problem and increasing legal pressures will force a change.

"Within a short amount of time, either the industry will voluntarily phase it out or the EPA will come up with a finding and cause it to be phased out," said David Stilwell, an analytical chemist for the state of Connecticut who has researched the risks of arsenic on wood products for six years. "The only safe level of arsenic is no arsenic."

For the Environmental Working Group study, moist polyester wipes were swiped across sections of wood the size of a 4-year-old's hand, or 100 square centimeters, and sent to a government-certified lab for analysis. Amounts of arsenic ranging from 18 to 1,020 micrograms were detected.

The National Academy of Sciences' National Research Council, in its September study for the EPA on arsenic in drinking water, found that long-term arsenic exposures of 10 micrograms a day translate into a 1 in 300 risk of lung or bladder cancer. On average, the swipes used in the study measured 25 times that, or 247 micrograms.

"This confirms what we suspected: Wood at retail stores is unsafe for the families that buy it," said Richard Wiles, senior vice president of the Environmental Working Group. "Arsenic-treated wood is as dangerous as arsenic in drinking water; in fact, it could be much more dangerous."

The National Academy of Sciences report influenced the Bush administration's decision to reduce the standard for arsenic in drinking water by 80%. The EPA is using the hazard assessment from that study for its risk assessment of arsenic-treated wood.

In response to public concern, the wood-processing industry recently started a program to attach tags to all of its lumber warning buyers against burning the wood and advising them to wear gloves, goggles and masks when working with it. Retailers are urged to post information sheets, which include precautions against using the treated wood for cutting boards or in other ways that would put it in contact with human or animal food. But there are no warnings against using it for play equipment or picnic tables.

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