Lumber Exposes Prompt
When a profitable multi-million dollar industry voluntarily phases out its product from public use, there must be a reason. In the case of pressure treated lumber the reason, according to manufacturers, was "market pressure." And the reason for the market pressure is arsenic and its threat to human health.
Pressure treated lumber is the greenish stuff used for decks, play sets, picnic tables, docks, boardwalks and many other uses. The wood's rot and insect resistant properties come from the preservative CCA, chromated copper arsenate. Two of the ingredients of CCA are arsenic and chromium, both on the U.S. government's Top 20 Hazardous Substances list.
CCA lumber has been the centre of a controversy which has grown from a whisper to a storm over the last year. Public information campaigns like the Environmental Working Group's advertisement "If CCA lumber is too toxic for zoo animals" and some hard hitting investigative journalism by several Florida newspapers have brought to light facts about CCA which the treated wood industry, Health Canada and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have chosen not to publicize.
Wood processors will stop making CCA
for non-industrial uses by the end of 2003. The phaseout will reduce sales
or arsenic treated lumber by 85%. Spokespeople for the treated wood industry
continue to claim that the preservatives are bonded in the wood so it poses
no hazard. Health Canada's Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) continues
to say they believe CCA lumber poses "no unacceptable risk."
In Connecticut, tests of soil samples under CCA wood decks found arsenic levels 20 times greater than the state's legal limit. Eric and Alex Whitrock, ten and eight years old, were diagnosed with arsenic poisoning. The children, who live Washington state, had been having unexplained problems for years. With Eric, it was vision problems. Alex had vision problems, and wild, unexplained temper tantrums. For years the family had tried to find out the cause. Finally, Alex was tested for heavy metals, and his arsenic levels were "off the chart." When their 10-year-old backyard CCA play set was tested to see if it was leaching arsenic, the readings in the soil under the set were almost eight times the level at which the state requires a cleanup. Levels on the surface of the wood itself were 40 times above cleanup levels. Dr. Lyn Hanshew is a pediatrician specializing in testing kids for exposure to heavy metals. She believes this situation may not be unique. "We're seeing so many children that are being labeled ADD or depressed and really what is probably going on is the neuro-cognitive effects of heavy metals."(KIRO-TV, Seattle, Washington) CCA wood is particularly problematic around children, because they are likely to put their hands in their mouths after touching it and because children chew or eat things (like dirt or wood) which adults don't. Children's less developed immune systems and smaller size make them even more vulnerable.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) , a non-profit public interest organization in the U.S., tested lumber in 13 cities. They wiped an area of pressure treated lumber the size of a 4-year-old's hand print, then measured the amount of arsenic. The amount would approximate the amount of arsenic which would come off on a small child's hand in one contact. The average level of arsenic measured was 25 times the EPA's recommended daily allowable exposure.
But it's not only children who are at risk. In the 1980s, Rick Feutz built a wooden float for his children at their lakefront property in Washington state. After a few days of sawing and hammering pressure treated CCA wood, he came down with flu-like symptoms and even collapsed once. By the end of the week, he was numb from the neck down. For the next year, Mr. Feutz could only walk with a walker and was so disoriented in the dark that he had to crawl. Fifteen years later, the signs of neurological damage remain. Mr. Feutz suffers from memory loss, weakness and partial paralysis in his face. He successfully sued producers of CCA wood.
When Lynn Milam of Mississippi developed
severe vomiting, diarrhea, nausea and cramps doctors were stumped.
They suspected diabetes, then an eating disorder, then lead poisoning.
Finally, more than four months after Milam first sought treatment, doctors
checked for heavy metals in her urine. Levels above 200 parts per billion
can be cause for alarm. Lynn Milam's urine showed 5,230 parts per billion.
Doctors believed her husband was probably poisoning her. Local police and
the FBI began investigating her husband for murder. When the FBI found
higher levels of arsenic in Thomas Milam than in his wife, everyone was
baffled. Then an insightful FBI investigator asked if the couple had any
contact with pressure treated wood. In fact, they were building a
new home; both had been sawing and working with CCA lumber. The criminal
investigation was dropped. The Milams, who are still sick, are
Arsenic is highly toxic. It is one of a short list of known human carcinogens. Organic arsenic occurs naturally in soil and rock where low levels are common. But low levels of inorganic arsenic, the type found in CCA wood, are far more hazardous. Inorganic arsenic was once used as an agricultural pesticide, but is no longer permitted for that purpose.
Florida's State Environmental Officer Bill Hinkley says, "We call it a 'threefer'. It can leave you dead as a doornail at high doses. It can kill you at moderate amounts over a long period. And it's a carcinogen at low levels."
Swallowing or inhaling arsenic causes the highest risk. While occasional contact with CCA wood is relatively safe, sawing, shaping or sanding it increases the chance of exposure to both arsenic and chromium. CCA sawdust can be inhaled, or swallowed. It can settle on food or in cups of coffee and be ingested. The smaller the piece of CCA, the more surface is exposed, resulting in more possible contact and leaching from the wood into surrounding soil.
Deborah Barrie and her family live in
Smith Falls, Ontario. Their lives were changed when they moved into
their present neighbourhood. "When we moved here neighbours said,
'we hope you won't get sick, everyone who lives here seems to get sick,'
" she recalls. The Barries did get sick. They eventually tracked
down the cause to a neighbour who burned pressure treated scrap wood in
his garage over a number of years. Ten years later, Barrie is still plagued
with crippling headaches, rashes and open sores, and breathing problems.
Her circulation is so damaged that she is in danger of losing her arm and
shoulder. Barrie suffered a range of problems. Vascular headaches
which could last for several months and severe joint pain sometimes sent
her to her local emergency room On a number of occasions she found
herself treated as a difficult, drug seeking patient and denied the medication
prescribed by her neurologist. When she was hospitalized for ten days,
doctors ran test after test. She begged them to test for arsenic, but they
refused. "It's not socially acceptable to say I'm poisoned," says
Barrie. "They think you've
Dr. Warren Bell, president of Canadian
Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE), explains, "Physicians
aren't taught about environmental causes of ill health. We're taught about
diseases. It creates a blind spot. Seeing public health in terms
of the ecosystem is beyond the imagination of most folks. ... There's a
tendency to believe just because people have been using [a product] for
Despite her severe health problems,
Barrie has become a crusader to have the hazards of CCA lumber recognized.
"I want to help the victims," she says. "I don't want anyone else to go
through what I did." When she became ill she couldn't find information
on CCA hazards or treatment through government agencies, although she later
found out that Health Canada was well aware of potential health risks from
exposure to burning CCA lumber. Several times Barrie was referred for psychiatric
assessment. "When medical tests find nothing wrong, family, friends,
neighbours, even doctors turn away," says Barrie. They think you are crazy.
I've heard this story
Burning CCA lumber is a superhazard. When CCA burns, arsenic and chromium are released as a highly toxic gas If there are galvanized nails in the wood, the combination can release arsine gas, another toxin. Arsenic is easily inhaled in its gaseous form. CCA ash is highly toxic as well, with high concentrations of arsenic and chromium. Burning CCA lumber is illegal as well as hazardous, but this information is far from common knowledge.
Gary Graisman is a lawyer in Chestnut
Hill, N.Y. He is working on a class action product liability suit
against CCA manufacturers and their trade organization, the American Wood
Preservers Institute. The suit alleges "conspiracy or a concerted effort
to withhold information about the arsenic content and toxicity of CCA wood,"
says Graisman. Graisman believes the recent phaseout shows the suit has
merit. "No one phases out a multi-million dollar industry unless they know
[the case] has merit. But that doesn't do anything for people who have
the wood on their property."
"Have we done a good enough job of informing
people what they are dealing
Among the facts people don't know which are now recognized: CCA lumber which is immersed in water will have higher rates of leaching. Having CCA in contact with drinking water is an absolute NO. If plants are grown close to CCA lumber, the arsenic which leaches into the soil can be taken up by the plant. Exposure to acids, including acid deck washes and bleaches can increase the release of arsenic.
Chipping CCA for mulch or compost is another unacceptable use. Safety data sheets provided to people working with CCA advise "avoid frequent or prolonged contact with skin."
In the fall of 2001, an agreement reached
between the treated wood industry, the EPA and Health Canada, resulted
in end tag labels which are now required on every piece of pressure treated
wood sold to consumers. The stickers read " CAUTION: ARSENIC IS IN THE
PESTICIDE APPLIED TO THIS
But a visitor to www.ccasafetyinfo.com might not come away particularly concerned. The strongest public health statement the site makes is "Exposure to arsenic and chromium may present certain hazards." Munson defends the site as "accurate and non-alarmist." Critics say, "it's wishy washy and irresponsible. There are more warnings on a bottle of medication."
Health Canada first received evidence that CCA could cause health problems in 1990 when department scientist Dieter Riedel completed a study of arsenic leaching from CCA lumber in Ottawa parks. He recommended that CCA lumber be kept away from children. The department ignored the recommendation. In 1992, Health Canada's PMRA decided to reevaluate CCA lumber. The reassessment is not yet complete, but will continue despite the phaseout. The first stage which will address all non-industrial uses of CCA should be released late this year. The assessment could effect the speed or scope of the phaseout as well as setting guidelines for CCA structures still in use and CCA disposal.
The National Academy of Sciences and the National Research Council in the U.S. have produced seven reports on arsenic, concluding multiple times that it causes a range of cancers including lung, bladder, and skin cancer in humans. In 2001, a new U.S. National Science Council study concluded that health risks from arsenic are greater than previously assumed. Virtually all research conducted on CCA in the past 15 years has found significant amounts of arsenic on the surface of pressure treated wood and established that the arsenic readily rubbed off on clothes and skin. A scientific panel struck to advise the EPA on CCA reported in late 2001, noting an "urgent need" for the government to test children who play on or around CCA wood for arsenic. They also want the EPA to require that existing arsenic treated wood be coated with a sealant to reduce leaching.
Dr. Robert Cushman, Ottawa's chief medical officer feels there is enough evidence to justify acting now. He has advised day care centres to use alternative materials in their play structures, and wants Ottawa to test for leaching in sites where pressure treated wood is used. Dr. Warren Bell of CAPE comments,"With CCA there are arguably a number of people experiencing subtle but real effects. You can't show dead bodies lying around the playground, but if you look at the chemistry of arsenic its bad stuff and there is evidence that kids are probably taking it in."
Halifax Regional Municipality stopped using CCA wood in playgrounds a number of years ago. N.S. Department of Education guidelines state the wood should not be anywhere children can come in contact with it. The Connecticut Department of Health warns that young children should be prevented from playing underneath CCA treated structures. California state senator Gloria Romero has presented a bill that would ban CCA wood and classify it as hazardous waste.
CCA lumber is being used in ways which
regulators never expected when the product was approved. "Putting the stuff
in playgrounds was not a brilliant move," says Munson, "but that [decision]
never came to regulatory bodies." Consumers in North America use over seven
billion board feet per year. The emphasis in recent discussions has been
to find an arsenic and chromium free pressure treated wood alternative.
There are now two approved for use in Canada, ACQ (amide copper quaternary)
and copper azole. But all pressure treated woods contain pesticides and
have some toxicity, says Munson. Another consumer option is to substitute
less toxic alternatives for pressure treated woods. Emmanuel Jannasch of
Snapdragon Park and Garden Structures in Halifax builds decks, fences,
planters and play structures from naturally rot-resistant woods, including
larch (also known as tamarack or hackmatack), hemlock, juniper, redwood
and cedar. Jannasch says good design and construction techniques can help
create long lasting structures
CCA wood has been banned in Switzerland, Japan and Indonesia, and its use is restricted in Germany, Denmark and Sweden. Despite the phaseout, CCA isn't history. It can still be used on farms, and in other industrial settings. And CCA structures are going to be around in homes, yards and public areas for many years, being swung on, sat on, eaten on, scraped and washed, and eventually disposed of.
The disposal of CCA poses a hazardous
waste problem of mammoth proportions. Because arsenic never breaks down,
CCA wood in use or in landfills slowly leaches arsenic into groundwater.
"Part of the life cycle of a pesticide is disposal," says
Rebecca Watson is a
free lance writer with a special interest in issues