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Streaming Video: News Stories Highlight Dangers of Wood Preservatives
(Beyond Pesticides, August 1, 2003)
In July 2003, Beyond Pesticides Executive Director Jay Feldman and lawyers James Handley and Paula Dinnerstein were interviewed by WWMT-3, a CBS affiliate in Kalamazoo, MI, for an investigative news story on the hazards of wood preservatives. Streaming video of this four-piece investigation can be viewed from the links at the end of this story. Mr. Handley and Ms. Dinnerstein are serving as legal counsel in a case brought by Beyond Pesticides, Communications Workers of America, a victim family in Florida, and the Center for Environmental Health against EPA to ban the three heavy-duty wood preservatives, pentachlorophenol, chromated copper arsenate (CCA), and creosote..

The Arsenic Threat: Pressure Treated Wood
By Abbie Boudreau, News 3 I-Team

When you hear the word arsenic, you probably think of poison. But maybe you should be thinking of wooden playground structures or outdoor decks instead. Experts say 80% of the wood used outdoors is pressure-treated with a chemical called chromated copper arsenate or CCA. CCA is a wood preservative used to protect wood from rot and decay.
Since the 1970's, this chemical has been used widely in the U.S. for decks and other outdoor wooden structures such as playgrounds. Wood industry officials insist CCA is a "very safe" product. But others are demanding proof.

Jay Feldman, the executive director of the group "Beyond Pesticides" based in Washington, D.C., calls this chemical a hidden danger. Arsenic is a known human carcinogen; exposure to it could cause cancer. Mr. Feldman is calling on the Environmental Protection Agency for an immediate ban on toxic wood preservatives like CCA. "People unknowingly are lounging on their decks. Their kids are playing on playground equipment. They are engaged in building projects. All the while, not aware that there's a hazard, a very severe hazard, lurking," Mr. Feldman told the I-Team.

But a vice president of Universal Forest Products of Grand Rapids, Scott Conklin, says CCA-treated wood is safe. "People have tried to be alarmists," he told us. "They've tried to banter around the name arsenic, to frankly to scare people." Mr. Conklin charges that people who raise concerns about CCA are "not grounded in science."

The Investigation

First of all, we tested soil and wood at two West Michigan playgrounds for levels of arsenic, the known carcinogen. We sent soil samples and wipe samples from the wood structures to the two labs, then sat down with a toxicologist.

The soil sample at Kids Palace of Coloma contained as much as 169 parts per million of arsenic. The soil sample from Randall Park in Lawrence had as much as 177 parts per million of arsenic.

Michigan's Department of Environmental Quality says that its standard of risk for residential cleanup is 7.6 parts per million. "We do know that arsenic is toxic. We do know that arsenic is in this wood. We do know that arsenic is released from this wood. We should do what we can to prevent our kids from being exposed to that," said Dr. Bernard H. Eisenga, the medical director of the Regional Poison Center.

Dr. Eisenga was even more disturbed at the lab tests on the wipe samples. "That's a very large amount of arsenic - especially the 2,900. That's 2.9 milligrams of arsenic that you're removing in a wipe sample."The physician believes exposure to this level of arsenic could create a greater risk of cancer for a lifetime. He's not alone.

In March, 2003, government scientists with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission reported that children who play on CCA-treated playground equipment are at a higher lifetime risk of developing lung and bladder cancer.

The predictions of greater health risks come just as dozens of lawsuits have been filed over various alleged medical problems. One is over what happened to a woman named Terry Sleep, who lives near Charlotte. After a tiny sliver of the wood became imbedded in her leg (from scraping against her deck) she developed a severe case of poisoning. Four surgeries later, she says it was a terrible experience. "It's just been an awful, awful experience," she says. "It really has."

Government experts are still testing sealants to try to determine what can work to stop the arsenic from coming out of the wood. In the meantime, they urge immediate hand-washing if you or children touch CCA-treated wood. "The idea is that arsenic is poison," says Jim Hahn, of Carpenters Local 525. "And you treat it like a poison."

Watch the reports

Click here to see how the News 3 I-Team investigation unfolded. It began with a tip from a woman in Holland, Michigan, about a telephone pole treated with a wood preservative. What investigative reporter Abbie Boudreau and photojournalist Carter Gent discovered at the family's home led them on a four-month probe of pressure-treated wood products. This report first aired at 6 p.m., July 14, 2003.

Click here to see Boudreau and Gent's report on the truth about whether arsenic from CCA-treated playground structures leaches into the soil or can come off on your hands when you touch it. Report first aired at 6 p.m., July 15, 2003.

Click here to see what happened to Terry Sleep of Charlotte, Michigan, after she fell and scraped her leg against her outdoors deck made from CCA-treated wood. When you go to buy pressure-treated wood, you're supposed to learn all about it at the store, but there's some dispute about what people learn from a retailer. Report first aired at 6 p.m., July 16, 2003.

Click here to see what you should do about CCA-treated wood, and about the precautions some people believe are prudent in handling it. CCA-wood will no longer be available in stores after 2003. Some stores are already offering alternatives. Report first aired at 6 p.m., July 17, 2003.