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Some playgrounds' wood potentially can leach arsenic

| Sunday, Aug. 12, 2001

Last Sunday, 13-year-old Steve Fiato and two pals were monkeying around at Playtime Palace - Cranberry Community Park's palatial wooden playground.

Pulling splinters after their romps is routine, they said, having sat on scaly, octagonal tables where they have cookouts after baseball games.

'It needs sanded,' said Fiato, referring to the rough surface.

But the tables, bridges and play areas - made of pressure-treated wood - might cause more than cuts and scrapes.

To ward off mold, dry rot, termites and other destructive bugs, the wood contains a pesticide - copper chromated arsenate, or CCA. Arsenate is better known as arsenic.

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Researchers say arsenic is leaching out of CCA-treated playgrounds across the United States. More than a dozen local playgrounds - one in Pittsburgh, the remainder in the suburbs - are built with the same type of treated lumber.

The lumber industry and health officials disagree on how much of a threat the leaching poses.

Industry officials say treated wood is safe and saves trees because it does not have to be replaced for dozens of years. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says CCA is a cancer-causing substance that can damage the nervous system and liver; CCA also can cause inflammation of the skin through repeated contact.

PESTICIDE USED WIDELY IN U.S.

Although CCA-treated lumber is banned in many countries, it accounts for 90 percent of the treated wood sold in the United States.

More than 15,000 tons of arsenic are used every year in the production of treated lumber, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The lumber is commonly used in backyard decks, gazebos and fences as well as public playgrounds and picnic tables. Most of that arsenic is imported from China.

'The EPA sharply reduced the use of arsenic in pesticides throughout the 1970s and 1980s,' said Charles Franklin, a researcher with the EPA's Office of Pesticide Programs. But the wood industry received an exemption.

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The wood industry admits that CCA-treated lumber leaches arsenic but says the levels are negligible, much less than the levels associated with cancer.

Warnings issued by lumber suppliers say consumers should wear a dust mask when sanding or sawing CCA-treated wood to avoid frequent or prolonged inhalation of sawdust. The warnings say the wood should not be used as a cutting board or counter top and that treated wood should not be burned in open fires or stoves because toxic chemical may be produced in the smoke and ashes.

A spokeswoman with Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse said the company phased out CCA-treated lumber in the horizontal surfaces of picnic tables during the beginning of the sales season.

'Obviously, most people would use plates,' Chris Ahearn said. 'But there is always a possibility that a child might put down a peanut butter sandwich.'

The companies said they are taking their lead from the EPA.

'It's been 17 years since EPA has looked at this,' said David Deegan, EPA spokesman, adding that the agency has agreed to review the CCA research from countries where the lumber is banned.

'One of the pieces that is under way is that we are looking at exposure among children,' Deegan said. 'We know that arsenic can leach out of wood.'

PLAYGROUND SOILS TESTED

Earlier this year, researchers with the University of Florida and the University of Miami took soil samples at three Miami playgrounds to test the environmental effects of older wooden playgrounds.

What they found was alarming, said Dr. Helena Solo-Gabriele, an engineering professor at the University of Miami. The tests revealed arsenic levels as much as 30 times higher than what the Florida Department of Environmental Protection considers safe.

Soil under the playgrounds contained 28 parts per million of arsenic, well above the 0.8 parts per million level set by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

Greg Kidd, of the national environmental group Beyond Pesticides, said children using playgrounds with treated lumber could ingest trace levels of arsenic.

'Kids love to stick their hands in their mouths - you know what kids are like,' Kidd said.

In Connecticut. state environmental officials are researching ways to reduce the risks of CCA-treated lumber.

A 1998 study by David Stilwell, of the Connecticut Agriculture Experiment Station, found that applying water sealant to treated wood can decrease arsenic leachate by 95 percent.

The American Wood Preservers Institute, however, said the wood is safe. The institute's study on the 'incidental ingestion of arsenic dislodged from the surface of treated wood' found the risk to be negligible.

Although alternative sealants are available, the industry prefers CCA because it is the most cost-effective.

Marc Leathers, president of the Ithaca, N.Y., company that has built more than 1,000 playgrounds across the country with CCA-treated lumber, said there is no proof that the wood is unsafe. A dozen of the Leathers playgrounds are in the Pittsburgh area.

Leathers and Associates, which involves community volunteers in designing and building the playgrounds, applies a linseed oil treatment on its wood surfaces and recommends that communities repeat the treatment every year.

'We establish friends of the park, but if they chose not to do it (treat the wood), we're kind of tied,' Leathers said.

MAINTENANCE WOES

When Playtime Palace was built in 1990, the event was Cranberry's version of a work festival. More than 800 people showed up to volunteer their time and tools to saw, drill and bolt the play area into place. Playtime Palace is behind a volunteeer fire company station.

More than 130 individuals and corporations are listed on the plaque as 'friends.'

But 11 years later, the playground shows the telltale signs of age - drying and cracking. The wood poses a number of maintenance problems, said Cranberry Township Manager Jerry Andree. But he insisted the playground is safe.

'We spend a lot of energy maintaining it,' Andree said. 'Is the playground safe• Absolutely.'

Some former Cranberry officials say the friends listed on the sign promised to maintain the playground but have not.

Playing it safe
Safety tips for CCA-treated lumber:

  • Treat patio decks and playgrounds once a year with a wood sealant
  • Limit animal or child access to under deck areas
  • Avoid using an acid-based brightener that could dislodge arsenic from the wood
  • Avoid eating off CCA-treated lumber surfaces
  • Wear a dust mask and goggles while sawing the wood
  • Do not burn CCA-treated lumber
  • Dispose of saw dust with trash

    Source: EPA consumer information and published scientific studies


    Playgrounds built by Leathers and Associates in the Pittsburgh area. Leathers and Associates uses primarily CCA-treated wood but has in recent years offered alternatives.

  • Baldwin - Colewood Park
  • Crafton - Crafton Park
  • Cranberry Township - Cranberry Community Park
  • Dormont - Dormont Park
  • Findlay Township - Clinton Park
  • Marshall Township - Knob Hill Community Park
  • Ohio Township - ACORD Park
  • Pittsburgh - Highland Park
  • Pleasant Hills - Pleasant Kingdom Park
  • Plum - Larry Mills Park
  • Robinson Township Clever Sports and Recreation Complex
  • West Mifflin - West Mifflin Community Park

    - Source: Tribune Review
  • 'They told us they'd be responsible for the maintenance,' said Kathy Frankel, the township's former director of parks and recreation.

    Frankel raised the issue of CCA-treated lumber with the community in 1989 and predicted the playground would become a health, safety and maintenance nightmare. She clashed with other community members and was overruled.

    Similar tales abound in other Pittsburgh suburbs.

    In Robinson Township, the public works department has taken over the maintenance of a 5-year-old wood playground from the Robinson Community Foundation.

    'We knew what was going to happen; that's what happened,' said Lynn Trinkala, the manager's secretary.

    'The people who raise all this money for those things, they get very protective when you criticize them,' said Denny Bolitho, who sells a brand of playgrounds that he touts as easier to maintain.

    'Then (the playgrounds) become maintenance problems.'

    Although maintenance can be a question, many municipal managers and public-works officials say the playgrounds pose no safety risk.

    Denny Kunkel, director of Public Works in Pleasant Hills, said the township's 'Pleasant Kingdom' is well taken care of and safe.

    'It's like anything else - under the wrong conditions, (CCA-treated playgrounds) could be harmful. I'm more concerned about all the decks and picnic tables made out of this stuff.

    'Would I let my kids play on it• Sure!' Kunkel said. 'I just wouldn't want to eat off of it.'

    Kunkel might want to watch where he sets his food in Allegheny County parks. By the county's estimate, as many as 25 percent of the picnic tables in the park system contain CCA-treated lumber.

    The public-works department began phasing out the use of pressure-treated lumber in picnic tables two years ago.

    CONSUMER AWARENESS GROWING

    The county might have known to phase out its use of CCA-treated lumber earlier, if the wood industry had followed through on its 1996 agreement with the EPA.

    According to Kidd, a 1996 voluntary agreement with the federal government, lumber retailers agreed to make available a consumer fact sheet warning consumers about the risks associated with the wood.

    At the Home Depot in Ohio Township, an obscurely placed 8 1/2- by 11-inch sign tells consumers that the wood is safe. It does not mention arsenic.

    Small print on the back side of colorful glossy fliers warns consumers and builders of the potential risks, but consumers have to know to ask for it. Home Depot employees had to search their office last Sunday for a copy of the warning.

    This fall, however, the industry will try again.

    Home Depot will begin a voluntary labeling campaign to warn consumers of the potential hazards.

    84-Lumber also is preparing to provide consumers with fact sheets, spokesman Randy Van Kirk said. He said 80 percent of the customers are contractors who are already aware of the issue.

    'These guys are well educated and certainly are aware of the problem,' Van Kirk said. 'I don't think it's an issue.'

    'WE DIDN'T KNOW'

    While contractors might know of the suggested precautions, many volunteers who built the area's wooden playgrounds over the past two decades said they were left in the dark.

    Linda Zucco of Plum was among hundreds of people who volunteered to build Plum's Paradise Park in 1995. She said nobody told her the material that she worked with contained arsenic.

    'We were all scheduled, and we worked like slaves,' Zucco quipped.

    She said some people sawed wood. Others screwed in bolts. Sawdust flew everywhere and dust masks were a rarity.

    During the five-day building project, people ate at the work site. There wasn't always a place for people to wash their hands.

    Zucco said she didn't know whether to be concerned about the news. Maybe it is overblown hype. Regarding the new warning labels, she said she doubts whether they will attract much attention.

    'We're saturated with (labels),' she said.

    'I think what is happening is we are all becoming cynical because of so many (warnings). We don't know what we've got anymore as a consumer.'

    David Faulk can be reached at dfaulk@tribweb.com or (412) 380-5615.

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