Toxic Playgrounds

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If there's one thing wood knows how to do, it's rot. Expose lumber to the elements, and within as few as five years, sun, rain, termites and fungus can reduce it to pulp. That's why builders were so enthusiastic in the 1970s when the lumber industry introduced pressure-treated boards--ordinary planks and posts injected with an extraordinary preservative known as CCA that can extend the life of wood fivefold, eliminating repairs and saving millions of trees annually. What got less attention at the time is the fact that CCA stands for chromated copper arsenate--a form of arsenic. And that's turned out to be a problem.

Though CCA is infused deep into the fibers of wood under very high pressure, the poison--which keeps the insects away--now seems to be leaching out. It's bad enough if decks, docks and maybe even a few picnic tables begin sweating arsenic, but the toxin was also widely used in children's playgrounds, where over the past couple of decades thousands of whimsical wooden forts and castles have been built on sites that once housed metal swings and cagelike jungle gyms.

Doctors admit that no one knows precisely what concentrations of environmental arsenic are toxic, and the wood-treatment industry insists that wherever that line is, its products don't cross it. Environmental groups, however, disagree, insisting that at any dosage level, children and arsenic don't mix. Says Richard Wiles, pesticide director for the nonprofit Environmental Working Group: "We've pretty much set up an arsenic delivery system for kids."

Most parents know little about the threat of poison in playgrounds, but in government circles, the alarm bells being sounded by consumer groups have reached the point where officials feel they have to act. Last week the Environmental Protection Agency announced that starting in the fall, CCA-treated lumber sold in the U.S. will contain a warning label, and stores will be provided with stickers and signs for their displays. At the same time, the Consumer Product Safety Commission agreed to ask for public comments on petitions that could lead to an outright ban of CCA. In Florida, dozens of playgrounds have been shut down, and Governor Jeb Bush has ordered a state-run wood-treatment plant to switch to another preservative. While adults wrestle with the politics of the problem, however, it's kids who may be paying the ultimate price.

For scientists investigating arsenic, the numbers are sobering. Ninety-eight percent of outdoor wood sold in the U.S. is treated with CCA. In Florida alone, nearly 30,000 tons of arsenic are believed to be at large. Investigators testing soil in the state's playgrounds have found arsenic levels far higher than hazardous-waste experts consider safe. Prolonged exposure can lead to nerve damage, dizziness and numbness, as well as increased risk of bladder, lung and skin cancer.

Rick Feutz knows better than most the harm that arsenic can do. In 1986 the Washington State teacher was building a wooden raft for his children, a job that required a lot of sawing--and a lot of sawdust. Within days, he felt achy and nauseated and experienced a tingling in his hands. The problem persisted, and eventually doctors diagnosed arsenic poisoning. The price he has paid is high: he lost a third of his overall motor control, and, even today, his face remains partly paralyzed. "My eye droops; I have weakness in my arms and legs," he says. "My long-term risk for bladder, lung and other problems is magnified enormously."

An environmental problem that was already coming to light 15 years ago ought, many argue, to have been addressed by now. Nine other nations, including Sweden, Germany, Vietnam and Indonesia, have banned or restricted CCA use, but federal and state regulators in the U.S. have taken a far more lax approach. In 1987, California passed a law requiring CCA-treated structures to be coated with paint or sealant every two years. The EPA set guidelines of its own, establishing a program under which woodmakers would provide a warning sheet with each package of treated lumber shipped to retailers. But critics charge that the California law has been largely ignored and point out that the EPA program is strictly voluntary. Even when suppliers provide warnings, retailers may simply discard them with packing material before customers ever see them.

The fact that the government has gone so easy on arsenic is, according to critics, a testament to the political muscle of the $4 billion-a-year wood-treatment industry. The industry counters that it has been left alone because it deserves to be--and the case it makes has some merit. If CCA were as deadly as some say, factory workers who make the stuff and carpenters who work with it ought to be falling ill in droves. Yet no one reports a measurable increase in disease among these groups. "Certainly, if there were a danger, it would show up," says Mel Pine, spokesman for the American Wood Preservers' Institute.

CCA foes don't buy this, pointing out that the EPA has already banned arsenic for all other pesticide applications--not the kind of thing the agency does lightly. In March, lawyers from Florida, New York, Washington and Indiana filed a class action against the industry and some retailers, hoping to force them to pay for sealing existing structures built with CCA and cleaning up contaminated sites. Such legal sword rattling may be having an effect. Last week PlayNation, a Georgia-based maker of playground equipment, announced that it will immediately switch to nonarsenic-based preservatives. According to several sources, the industry as a whole could make such a change at a cost of just $40,000 per treatment plant. Pine won't speculate on whether the industry will consider making the switch, though he concedes that the final decision "will depend on the market."

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