Daily News Archive

Testing of Decks and Playsets Shows High Levels of Arsenic in Old Wood, Findings Contradict EPA Safety Assurance
(from August 30, 2002)

Results from the largest–ever testing program for arsenic–treated wood, released yesterday by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), show that the public remains at risk from high levels of arsenic leaching out of pressure–treated wood in older decks, playsets, and picnic tables.

Study findings reported in EWG’s “All Hands on Deck” indicate that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was wrong in reassuring the public last February about the safety of existing backyard structures. When the Agency announced that the wood treatment industry had agreed to a voluntary “phase out” of the cancer–causing, arsenic–based pesticide used pressure treat playsets and backyard decks, EPA stated that it did “not believe there is any reason to remove or replace arsenic–treated structures.” [Emphasis added.] But new data show that consumers with old wood structures remain at risk from arsenic that easily wipes off the wood surface. Children who play on arsenic–treated playsets and decks are at particularly high risk.

Since last November, consumers across the country have tested 263 decks, playsets, and picnic tables, and the arsenic–contaminated soil beneath them, via an at–cost testing kit sold through EWG’s website, www.ewg.org. The samples were analyzed by the University of North Carolina – Asheville’s Environmental Quality Institute. The results of the consumer testing program show:

1. Older decks and playsets (seven to 15 years old) expose people to just as much arsenic on the wood surface as newer structures (less than one year old). The amount of arsenic that testers wiped off a small area of wood about the size of a four–year–old’s handprint (100 square centimeters) typically far exceeds what EPA allows in a glass of water under the Safe Drinking Water Act standard.

2. Arsenic in the soil from two of every five backyards or parks tested exceeds the U.S. EPA’s Superfund cleanup level of 20 parts per million (ppm).

3. Commercial wood sealants lose their effectiveness at trapping arsenic after about 6 months, thus providing no long–term protection from arsenic exposure.

“Consumers had to take it upon themselves to conduct a testing program that should have been done long ago. And now consumers are taking steps to protect their families, as they learn that arsenic levels on backyard decks and playsets remain high for 20 years,” said EWG Analyst Sean Gray.

Arsenic isn’t just poisonous in the short term, it causes cancer in the long term. Arsenic is on EPA’s short list of chemicals known to cause cancer in humans. According to the National Academy of Sciences, exposure to arsenic causes lung, bladder, and skin cancer in humans, and is suspected as a cause of kidney, prostate, and nasal passage cancer. Numerous studies show that arsenic sticks to children’s hands when they play on treated wood, and is absorbed through the skin and ingested when they put their hands in their mouths.

For more than 20 years the wood industry has infused green wood with heavy doses of arsenic to kill bugs and prevent rot. Although most uses of arsenic wood treatments will be phased out by 2004, an estimated 90 percent of existing outdoor structures are made of arsenic–treated wood.

EWG’s consumer testing results come as an EPA advisory panel prepares to meet Friday to discuss the Agency’s proposed method for assessing cancer risks faced by children playing on arsenic–treated wood structures.

“The EPA’s advice has misled millions of consumers about the safety of existing arsenic treated wood,” said Jane Houlihan, Vice President for Research. “It’s time that the Agency act to protect and inform consumers,” she added.

Short of replacing their decks and playsets, families can lower their arsenic exposures by sealing the wood at least every six months, and washing hands thoroughly after contacting the wood. They can also replace boards in high traffic areas such as handrails and decking with arsenic–free alternatives.

For more information see the Environmental Working Group website.