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   WB01343_.gif (599 bytes) Pesticide and Environmental Update

Late Lessons Learned From
Pressure Treated Wood- Part 2 

by Sandra Steingraber, Ph.D.*

In Rachel's #784, we began tracing the history of CCA-treated wood from 1933 onward. CCA is a toxic and carcinogenic wood preservative, chromated copper arsenate.

The crucial period in the history of CCA was 2001-2002 when citizens all across the country focused on the hazards to children from arsenic-treated wood. In Oakland, California, the Center for Environmental Health (CEH) brought a series of lawsuits[1] under California's famous labeling law, Prop 65[2]. During 2002, major manufacturers of playground equipment and picnic tables capitulated to CEH and agreed to take CCA-treated wood out of their products.[1]

However, after the EPA's (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's) February 2002 decision to phase out CCA-treated wood over a 22-month period, anti-CCA efforts lost momentum for a time. (See Rachel's #784.)

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) acknowledged almost immediately that the EPA's phase-out decision would impact its own decision-making.[3] And it did. CPSC's own risk assessment -- released in February 2003 -- showed that children do face a significantly increased risk of cancer from contact with pressured-treated wooden play structures. Nevertheless, the Commission voted, eight months later, to deny a petition by the Environmental Working Group (EWG)[4] and the Healthy Building Network (HBN)[5] to ban the use of CCA wood in play structures and to recall existing structures.

The EPA's action in canceling the registration of CCA, the CPSC argued, would have much the same effect as the requested ban and recall.[6] (This is a little like claiming that the lead poisoning problem was solved in 1978 when paint companies agreed to stop adding lead to their products.)

Julie Hauserman, the Florida reporter who first broke the story on pressure-treated wood and continues to write about the issue, attributes some of the shift in momentum to the efforts of the timber industry. For example, C. Boyden Gray was hired by a leading wood treater at the height of the crisis to fend off government regulation. Gray has intimate ties to the Bush family, having served as general counsel for the first President George Bush. Shortly after Gray came on the scene, Hauserman notes, the EPA, without explanation, delayed the release of its promised risk assessment for children playing on arsenic-treated wood.[7]

A draft of this report was finally released in November 2003 after multiple delays.[8] It, too, showed that the lifetime cancer risk to children who play frequently on CCA structures is elevated. But, by then, the media's attention was elsewhere, and the January 1 deadline for phase-out was only weeks away. The EPA and the CPSC are currently involved in a joint project to look at the effectiveness of various sealants in protecting children from the arsenic in CCA wood -- right now, there are no solid data to support the often-repeated recommendation to seal decks and play structures to protect against exposure -- but these results will not be available until 2005.[9] (Some sealants appear to offer short-term protection but need to be applied every six months and do nothing to stop migration of arsenic into soil from underground posts.[10]) In short, at the present moment, consumers are left to fend for themselves.

What, then, are the late lessons from the early warnings on pressure-treated wood? There are at least three.

1) Citizen science is a powerful tool for social change. Arming parents, journalists, and community activists with arsenic sampling kits, testing protocols, and the address of a reputable analytical chemistry lab[11] has provided indisputable evidence that pressure-treated wood turns back yards and playgrounds into miniature toxic waste sites. Not only did the results of citizen research help compel the EPA to take belated action, it spurred individual communities to respond proactively. For example, two playgrounds in the Buffalo, New York area were closed after testing results were made public. The city of Albany removed all of its wooden play structures after testing was conducted there.[12]

2) Early failure to regulate an environmentally harmful industry makes regulation more difficult later -- even when the scientific case for doing so becomes stronger. Between 1978, when the EPA first announced that it would consider revoking the registration of CCA, and 1988, when it decided not to, the manufacture of CCA wood increased by 400 percent.[13] Regulatory inaction allowed the wood treatment industry to grow exponentially. Now, 26 years later, the EPA has decided to cancel CCA's registration after all. Now millions of back yards and thousands of playgrounds are contaminated with arsenic. And now the industry has the likes of C. Boyden Gray, as well as, most recently, Bob Dole, lobbying on behalf of its interests.[14]

Another early failure to regulate came in 1982 when CCA was granted a special exemption to the hazardous waste rules. This allowed CCA wood to be dumped in ordinary, unlined landfills rather than in hazardous waste landfills -- even though the chemicals in the wood constitute hazardous waste (and did so even by the standards of 1982). This exemption, which persists today, represents an administrative sleight-of-hand by which a hazardous substance is changed into a non-hazardous substance without changing the toxic nature of the substance itself.[15] Had this exemption not been granted, CCA lumber would have undoubtedly remained the specialty product that it had been for decades. It's a safe bet that not many consumers would be lining up to buy pressure-treated lumber if they knew they would have to pay hundreds of dollars in hazardous waste tipping fees when the kids outgrow the play fort. Current projections estimate that between 100 and 400 million cubic feet of CCA-treated wood will be dumped in landfills each year until at least 2016, raising the specter of groundwater contamination.[16]

3) Lawsuits matter. Journalist Julie Hauserman credits citizen lawsuits for helping her make the case in her 2001 expose. "There was a lot of discovery about what the wood industry knew, when it knew it, what the EPA had or hadn't done."[17] Clearly the Prop 65 lawsuits brought by the Center for Environmental Health in Oakland convinced the manufacturers of play equipment and picnic tables that resistance was futile. The environmental group Beyond Pesticides is currently participating in a lawsuit against the EPA in order to end continued use of CCA. A federal judge recently issued an outrageous order dismissing part of the suit, but it remains a legal battle worth fighting and worth watching.[18]


*Sandra Steingraber, Ph.D., is a biologist and author (see Rachel's #565, #658, #776, #777, #784). She is currently a Distinguished Visiting Scholar in the Interdisciplinary Studies Program at Ithaca College in Ithaca, New York.


[2] For the background of Prop 65, see

[3] U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, "Questions and Answers: CCA-Treated Wood," Feb. 2002 (



[6] U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, "Petition to Ban Chromated Copper Arsenate (CCA)-Treated Wood in Playground Equipment (Petition HP 01-3)," Feb. 2003; U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, "CPSC Denies Petition to Ban CCA Pressure-Treated Wood Playground Equipment," 4 Nov. 2003 press release. (An excellent collection of these and other CPSC documents can be found on

[7] J. Hauserman, "Treated Wood Industry Fights Back," St. Petersburg Times, 2 July 2001 ( .shtml).

[8] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, "Cancellation of Residential Uses of CCA-Treated Wood: Questions and Answers," (20 March 2003,

[9] Patricia Bittner, Division of Health Sciences, Consumer Product Safety Commission, personal communication (

[10] For a thoughtful discussion on the efficacy of various sealants, see Beyond Pesticide's website (

[11] Environmental Working Group provides these kits at low cost.

[12] N.R. Smith and others, Arsenic Levels at CCA Pressure Treated Wooden Playgrounds in Western New York (Buffalo, NY: New York Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides and Erie County Environmental Management Council, 15 Sept. 2003).

[13] C. Cox, "Chromated Copper Arsenate," Journal of Pesticide Reform Vol. 11 (1991), pgs. 2-6.

[14] P. Eisler, "Safety Concerns Cut Down Treated Lumber by Millions," USA Today, 28 Dec. 2003. news/nation/2003-12-29-treated-lumber_x.htm

Bob Dole is lobbying for registration approval for wood treated with Acid Copper Chromate, which critics allege poses unacceptable risks of hexavalent chromium exposure. Hexavalent chromium is a carcinogen.

[15] D.A. Belluck and others, "Widespread Arsenic Contamination of Soils in Residential Areas and Public Spaces: An Emerging Regulatory or Medical Crisis?" International Journal of Toxicology Vol. 22 (2003), pgs. 109-128.

[16] K.A. O'Connell, "Poison Planks," Waste Age, 1 Oct. 2003 2&magazineid=121&siteID=27&releaseid=11680&mode=print

[17] M. Dunne, interview with Julie Hauserman in SEJournal, Society of Environmental Journalists, Winter, 2001, p. 1.






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