Lumber Exposes Prompt Phaseout
by Rebecca Watson
UPdate Summer 2002

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."
But evidence is mounting that CCA lumber is not as safe as manufacturers and regulators say.  Last March, the St. Petersburg Times in Florida commissioned a series of tests of wood and soil in five local playgrounds built with CCA lumber. In every case, the results showed arsenic levels far higher than the state compulsory cleanup levels.  Testing in other Florida playgrounds found similar results, and dozens of playgrounds were closed.

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
suing the wood manufacturers. Doctors believe if the couple had not been diagnosed when they were, "they would both be dead . . . and the cause of death would have been buried along with them." (Gainesville Sun) 

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
been watching too many movies." Doctors are often unaware of the possibility of arsenic leaching from pressure treated wood and don't consider arsenic as a possible source of patients' health problems. 

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
years it must be safe."

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
again and again. Other victims are so glad to hear me say, you're not crazy - working with or living in a house made of pressure treated wood can cause these problems."  Barrie and supporters gathered over 5000 names on a petition calling for a ban on all uses of the lumber.  The petition was presented in Parliament earlier this year.

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."
In the 1980s, the EPA considered banning CCA wood. All other pesticides
containing inorganic arsenics were banned, but an exemption was made for the $4 billion a year CCA lumber industry. President Reagan exempted the wood from classification as a hazardous waste as well, even though it qualified.  The EPA and the industry agreed that the wood would stay on the market, and purchasers would be warned of precautions that should be taken with it.  Canada followed the U.S. on these matters. Both the EPA and the industry now agree that the voluntary warning procedure has been "a complete failure."

"Have we done a good enough job of informing people what they are dealing
with," reflects Barry Munson of Environment Canada. "No. Six months ago public awareness about precautions and proper uses of CCA were nonexistent. I don't think people knew it was a pesticide."

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
Richard Martin is a senior reevaluator with the PMRA, the branch of Health Canada responsible for evaluating CCA.  Martin says the agency is now doing "a bit more than average" to make people aware of the risks of CCA. "If people don't take the warnings seriously, then they increase their risk unnecessarily."

But a visitor to 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
without the use of treated wood.  In Nova Scotia, there are two less toxic liquid wood preservatives which consumers can apply; Boracol, made of glycol and borates and Lifetime Wood Treatment, made by Valhalla Wood Preservatives which has no solvents, heavy metals or petroleum products. For posts, including utility poles, Impel boron rods can be used. Borocol and Impel rods are available from Chemcraft.  A recipe for an arsenic free preservative which can be made at home is available on Organic Gardening's website.

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
Environment Canada's Munson. "With CCA, there's no effective way to dispose of it." How the millions of feet of hazardous CCA waste containing hundreds of tons of arsenic can be disposed of in the future with a minimum of contamination is a problem with which scientists are just beginning to grapple.


See also:
Pressure Treated Wood Precautions by Rebecca Watson
Arsenic: Symptoms, diagnosis and effects by Rebecca Watson
Treated Wood: Do You Know What You're Using?, by Andrea Johnson
Children's playsets, should you use treated wood? by Andrea Johnson

Rebecca Watson is a free lance writer with a special interest in issues
relating to health and the environment. Information from files of Deborah
Barrie (, Gainesville Sun (Ron Malthus), Ottawa
Citizen, Healthy Building Alternatives, Beyond Pesticides (www.beyond, Environmental Working Group (