PANNA: Arsenic Risk in Children’s Playground Equipment


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Arsenic Risk in Children’s Playground Equipment
September 17, 2001

Children are more likely to be exposed to harmful levels of arsenic from play structures, picnic tables and decks than from drinking water according to a recent Environmental Working Group (EWG) study. “We know that arsenic in drinking water is dangerous for kids, but what we found was that the arsenic in lumber is an even greater risk,” said EWG analyst Renee Sharp. “In less than ten days, an average five year old playing on an arsenic-treated playset would exceed the lifetime cancer risk considered acceptable under federal pesticide law.” The report, entitled “Poisoned Playgrounds,” is based on analysis of data from 180 samples of treated wood taken across the U.S. and an extensive review of scientific literature.

Virtually all of the lumber sold for outdoor use in the U.S. is pressure-treated and injected with toxins that act as preservatives and pesticides. Chromated copper arsenate (CCA) is the most common wood preservative used in the U.S., containing 22% pure arsenic. 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 touch CCA-treated wood on a regular basis.

A 12-foot section of pressure-treated lumber contains about an ounce of arsenic, or enough to kill 250 people. The U.S. wood products industry is the world’s largest consumer of the poison, using half of all arsenic produced worldwide. Although arsenic is banned as a pesticide for agriculture and food applications, wood treatment has a special exemption under U.S. pesticide laws.

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

An EWG study of two play structures in Oakland, California, discovered high levels of arsenic that could significantly increase a child’s lifetime risk of cancer. In Florida, dozens of public playgrounds were closed following detection of high levels of arsenic. In response to public concern, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently proposed labeling all pieces of CCA-treated lumber and developing in-store displays to tell consumers about the dangers associated with the lumber. EPA is conducting a reassessment of CCA that will be released for public review in 2002.

The Healthy Building Network — a coalition of builders, health advocates and environmentalists — is petitioning the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) for an outright ban on arsenic in lumber, urging manufacturers and retailers to use alternative types of wood.

Center for Environmental Health (CEH), a California-based advocacy group, has filed a legal notice to sue 11 U.S. manufacturers of arsenic-treated wooden playground equipment. A successful lawsuit would force manufacturers to either warn the public of risks pose by arsenic or to stop using arsenic altogether.

To reduce children’s exposure to arsenic in CCA-treated wood, avoid eating on CCA-treated picnic tables or cover the table with a plastic-coated tablecloth, seal CCA-treated wood structures annually with polyurethane or other hard lacquer, use wood products that do not contain arsenic for new construction and tell children to wash their hands after playing on CCA-treated surfaces, particularly before eating.

Sources: Environmental Working Group “Poisoned Playgrounds,” 2001, available at; Environmental Working Group Press Release, “Healthy Building Network, Environmental Working Group, Petition Consumer Product Safety Commission to Ban Sale of Arsenic-treated Lumber for Playgrounds,” May 23, 2001; MSNBC Your Environment, “Poisoned Playgrounds?,” August 8, 2001; Environmental Protection Agency Press Release, July 3, 2001.

Contacts: Environmental Working Group, 1904 Franklin St., Suite 515, Oakland, CA 94612; phone (510) 444-0973; fax (510) 444-0982; email [email protected]; Web site; or Center for Environmental Health, 528 61st Street Suite A, Oakland, CA 94609; phone (510) 594-9864; fax (510) 594-9863; email [email protected]; Web site

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