Children who repeatedly make physical contact with arsenic-treated wood face an increased possibility of developing cancer, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) warned in November, 2003. Our Q&A style discussion follows.
1. What is pressure-treated wood?

It’s the wood used to build playground equipment, home decks, picnic tables, residential fencing, and patios. It is called “pressure-treated” because manufacturers expose the wood to chemicals under high pressure conditions. The chemicals protect the wood from rotting, mold, and termites.

2. Why is pressure-treated wood thought to be harmful?

Because most of it has been treated with a preservative named chromated copper arsenic (CCA). CCA contains arsenic, a substance that is considered a carcinogen by the World Health Organization and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. CCA contains 22% arsenic in its inorganic form.

3. Why is it controversial to use CCA-treated wood in playground equipment?

Because when people touch CCA, arsenic resin rubs off on their hands. The easiest way for arsenic resin to enter the human body is through the mouth. Children like to put their hands in their mouths, as we all know.

4. How much arsenic do children intake by playing on equipment made of CCA-treated wood?

It depends on which source you listen to.

  • EPA scientists say that levels of arsenic in CCA are low enough so that you do not need to replace your playground equipment. On the other hand, the EPA has banned the residential use of CCA products after December 31, 2003.
  • A consumer group, the Environmental Working Group, says that exposure to arsenic will give cancer later in life to one of every 500 children who regularly use playground equipment or decks made from pressure-treated wood.

5. Does my wooden playground equipment have CCA in it?

Probably. About 90% of the playground equipment built with pressure-treated lumber since the 1970s has been treated with CCA. You should contact the manufacturer for details.

6. What is the federal government doing about this?

In 2002, the CPSC announced a prohibition on residential use of CCA starting December 31, 2003.

The government is also studying it further. The EPA is currently doing its own evaluations of the amounts of arsenic resin that is transferred to the human hand when it makes contact with a surface treated with CCA.

7. What can I do about CCA?

If your playground equipment was treated with CCA, the Consumer Product Safety Commission recommends that you

  • Insist that kids wash their hands after they are done playing on the equipment.
  • Don’t let kids eat food while they’re using the playground equipment.

Second, coat the wooden equipment with paint or stain on a regular basis. A 1999 study by the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station showed that physical contact with CCA may be reduced by up to 95% by coating the wood with polyurethane, acrylic, or spar varnish. An oil based alkyl resin proved 90% effective, slightly less powerful but still well worth the effort. An annual application of paint or stain is considered appropriate.

Finally, consider replacing playground equipment and picnic tables. This is an expensive proposition, no doubt, but more schools and daycares may go in this direction. Arsenic resin and CCA will probably be in the news in coming months, and the staff and administrators of schools and daycares may find themselves faced with awkward questions from worried parents.

8. Are there any legal issues I should know about?

So far, no successful lawsuits related to playground equipment built with CCA-treated wood have been reported.  But if the government takes action on CCA, organizations that have wooden playground equipment may run the risk of being named in lawsuits.

Among the litigation so far:

  • In 2001, a federal court dismissed a lawsuit filed in Florida against manufacturers and sellers of pressure-treated wood. The plaintiff sought compensation related to the deck on his house. The court denied all of his claims, including one for liability, which was denied because the plaintiff failed to prove that the wood had adversely affected his health.
  • In 1996, a New York man filed suit seeking damages because CCA-treated lumber was not labeled as such, and for negligent testing of a pesticide. The court ruled against him, holding that the labeling of such products was governed by federal legislation (the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act), which did not require any such labeling. But legal scholars believe that with stronger evidence, the claim of negligent testing of a pesticide could be upheld.

9. If CCA is dangerous, why are we only hearing about it now?

Because the federal government only recently started discussing its use on playgrounds. In 2001, the Environmental Working Group and the Health Building Network (two consumer groups) petitioned the CPSC to ban the use of CCA-treated lumber in playground equipment.  In 2002, the CPSC announced a prohibition on residential use of CCA starting December 31, 2003.

10. This sounds like another media scare to me. Why should I believe the consumer groups?

You can decide for yourself. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry in Atlanta, Georgia currently recommends that if you use arsenic-treated wood in home projects, you should wear dust masks, gloves, and protective clothing to decrease exposure to sawdust. This implies the need to protect the body from exposure to materials treated with CCA. The lumber industry announced February 12, 2003 that it is phasing out the use of CCA in consumer products by the end of the 2003 in favor of alternative wood preservatives. The CPSC is currently studying how much CCA and arsenic a child is exposed to while using playground equipment, and the organization will not make any decisions until its research is done.

11.  How likely is it that the EPA will pay to replace playground equipment treated with CCA?

Extremely unlikely. The federal government rarely involves itself in the financial aspect of health concerns over manufactured goods, preferring to leave the matter to the courts.

12. Timeline

  • December, 2003 – Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) deadline for manufacturers to cease production of residential products using CCA
  • March, 2003 –The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission warns that playground equipment made of pressure-treated wood may pose a long-term cancer risk to children.
  • February 12, 2003 – EPA announces that the lumber industry has decided to cease production of residential products using CCA
  • June, 2001 – Consumer groups petition the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to ban wood treated with arsenic
  • 2001 – EPA begins requiring consumer warning labels on treated lumber containing arsenic
  • 1970s – wood treated with CCA enters wide residential use
  • 1940s – lumber industry begins using CCA on wood products

13. Links to CCA- and/or arsenic-related data