PANNA: Arsenic Wood Preservative Phased Out in U.S.


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Arsenic Wood Preservative Phased Out in U.S.
February 18, 2002

On February 12, 2002, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a voluntary decision by the pressure-treated wood industry to phase out use of the common arsenic-based wood preservative chromated copper arsenate (CCA) in products destined for consumer markets. CCA -- the most common wood preservative used in the U.S. -- contains 22% pure arsenic, a known human carcinogen.

By January 2004, the EPA will no longer allow pressure-treated wood containing CCA to be used for residential applications such as children's play structures, decks, picnic tables, landscaping timbers, residential fencing or walkways. As industry switches to alternative materials during the next two years, new labeling will be required on all commercially sold CCA-treated wood. However, despite restrictions on residential use, industrial uses of the treated lumber such as for guardrails and utility poles will still be allowed.

Arsenic is an acute poisoning hazard, can cause skin, bladder and lung cancer in humans and is linked to diabetes and endocrine disruption. Children are more susceptible than adults to the impacts of arsenic exposure. Since their bodies are still developing, they absorb more pesticide per pound of body weight and are more likely to touch CCA-treated wood on a regular basis.

In 1984, the EPA determined that pesticides containing arsenic were not safe and two years later banned most inorganic arsenic pesticides. CCA, however, was still allowed in pressure-treated wood as a 'restricted use' pesticide. EPA is continuing with its current reassessment of CCA. Despite the voluntary withdrawal, the agency has stated that there is no conclusive evidence that CCA poses unreasonable risks to the public and that it does not believe that there is any reason to remove or replace existing CCA-treated structures or surrounding soils.

Critics disagree, expressing concern that EPA will neither immediately nor fully stop public exposure to CCA or other hazardous wood preservatives. Victims poisoned by wood preservatives are calling for an outright ban on the substances. "Nothing short of a ban of all uses of the hazardous wood preservatives will protect the public from the chemical's short and long term adverse health effects," said Jay Feldman, Executive Director of Beyond Pesticides/National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides. "Since less toxic and non-toxic alternatives are available for all wood preservative uses, it is wrong and unnecessary to allow any use to continue," Feldman commented.

Feldman further said that the "continued presence of CCA and pentachlorophenol wood products in existing structures and their eventual disposal creates potential for ongoing human and environmental exposures," which are not addressed in the current phase-out agreement.

Lab and field studies show that potentially hazardous amounts of arsenic leach out of CCA-treated wood, which could contaminate groundwater and soil and infiltrate living organisms through ingestion or absorption.

Currently, approximately 90% of the lumber sold for outdoor use in the U.S. is pressure-treated and injected with toxins that act as preservatives and pesticides. Less harmful options exist for protecting pressure-treated wood from termites and other pests, such as alkaline copper quat, but such alternatives are more expensive and not widely available.

Industry officials cite market pressure and consumer demand as the reasons for the withdrawal. Several pending lawsuits against Home Depot, Loews, other building supply stores and manufacturers of CCA-treated lumber have charged that consumers were not adequately informed of the risks of using the lumber.

Although not bound by the U.S. phase-out agreement, Home Depot stores in Canada have announced that they will also stop selling CCA-treated wood, but only after their current stocks of the product have been sold. The company's spokesperson said that this means the lumber will be on the shelves for another year.

Late last year, 13 national, regional and state environmental groups in the U.S. petitioned EPA to ban CCA and the dioxin-laden pentachlorophenol. CCA treated wood is banned in Switzerland, Vietnam and Indonesia, and its use is limited or restrictions on its use have been proposed in Japan, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Australia and New Zealand.

Source: The Ottawa Citizen, February 14, 2002; Washington Post February 13, 2002; EPA Press Release, February 12, 2002; Beyond Pesticides/NCAMP Press Release, February 12, 2002; Associated Press, February 1, 2002; USA Today, January 31, 2002; PANUPS September 17, 2001.

Contact: Beyond Pesticides/National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides (NCAMP), 701 E Street, SE, Washington DC 20003; phone 202-543-5450; fax 202-543-4791; email info@beyondpesticides.org; Web site http://www.beyondpesticides.org.

PANUPS is a weekly email news service providing resource guides and reporting on pesticide issues that don't always get coverage by the mainstream media. It's produced by Pesticide Action Network North America, a non-profit and non-governmental organization working to advance sustainable alternatives to pesticides worldwide.

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