CCA-infused wood to be phased out

Published: Friday, February 1, 2002 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, February 20, 2003 at 12:37 p.m.

Arsenic-laced wood is on its way out.

The pressure treated wood industry is close to finalizing a deal with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to phase out production of the wood over the next two to three years. Arsenic-free alternatives would be produced in its place.

Industry sources told The Gainesville Sun Thursday that a deal is all but done, but may not be signed for several weeks.

The wood is infused with chromated copper arsenate, or CCA, an arsenic-laden pesticide that critics say poses a health risk to children who play on it, and to carpenters and consumers who saw or burn it. Arsenic is highly toxic and known to cause cancer.

"This will be remembered as one of the great pollution-prevention victories," said Bill Hinkley, solid waste chief for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and a longtime CCA critic. "It will be seen in retrospect to be of comparable importance to getting mercury out of consumer batteries or the lead out of gasoline."

CCA is the treated-wood industry's best-selling product and an anchor for the multi-billion-dollar home-improvement industry. It is used to treat 7 billion board feet of new decks, docks, fences, boardwalks, playground equipment and telephone poles every year.

"What's going on is what the industry believes is in keeping with current and anticipated market demands," said Mel Pine, spokesman for the American Wood Preservers Institute, the industry trade group.

Pine said he could not comment further.

EPA officials said they could not comment about details until an agreement was finalized.

The road to a phase-out began on a Gainesville playground.

Two years ago, Alachua County school officials ordered the removal of the Kidspace playground structure at Terwiliger Elementary School after scientists found troubling levels of arsenic in the soil. The arsenic had leached from the wood.

That set in motion a wave of media attention that brought the industry scrutiny from politicians, environmentalists, consumer groups, the EPA and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

The $4-million-a-year industry is also facing at least one federal class-action suit, and several other product liability cases. The cases have targeted the CCA manufacturers, as well as treating plants, lumber yards and Lowe's and Home Depot, the wood's biggest retailers.

Rumors of a phase-out have been flying for at least a month. And signs are increasingly visible that the industry is weary of CCA.

At least two dozen treatment plants, where raw lumber is infused with pesticide, are switching to alternatives, and smaller lumber retailers are clearing shelf space for arsenic-free wood.

Earlier this month, The Sun reported the National Lumber and Building Materials Association, which represents 7,000 independent lumber dealers, was advising its members to get product-liability and product-recall insurance.

Given the enormous pressure, some critics said they weren't surprised by word of a phase out.

"They had their back to the wall," said Paul Bogart with the Healthy Building Network, a leading critic of CCA.

Jay Robbins, vice president of Tampa-based Robbins Manufacturing, one of the biggest treaters in Florida, said dropping CCA won't hurt the industry financially.

The alternatives, though up to 20 percent more expensive, are still competitive with non-wood products such as plastic and concrete, he said.

"From our standpoint, it really doesn't make a difference," he said.

But Robbins said the phase-out presents "interesting timing issues" for the country's 300 treatment plants.

"Everybody can't switch out in one day or ... the building industry would stop," he said.

All three companies that make CCA - Osmose, Arch Wood and Chemical Specialties - developed arsenic-free alternatives years ago. But CCA supporters said they resisted switching because the alternatives didn't have CCA's track record and consumers weren't clamoring for it.

Critics say the industry knew its product was potentially harmful. They say a switch is long overdue.

The pending phase out "is a long time coming," said Rick Feutz, a former Washington Teacher of the Year who doctors say suffered acute arsenic poisoning after working with the wood in 1986. "This is a victory for kids, and for people who unwittingly used this stuff and didn't realize the danger."

Even though national attention has focused on the risk to children, The Sun found more than 40 cases in which people filed complaints of illness or injury, with a dozen backed by medical testimony. Most were carpenters, construction workers or consumers.

David Stilwell, a chemist at the Connecticut Agriculture Research Station in New Haven, Conn., was one of the first researchers to raise red flags about leaching arsenic. But when he released his study results in 1996, the industry savaged his work.

"I feel good about it," Stilwell said of the phase out. "I'm glad they've finally come around."

Not all CCA critics are happy with the deal. At least not yet.

Dan McLaughlin, spokesman for U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said the senator was disappointed the deal may involve EPA dropping a much-anticipated risk-assessment study.

The agency commissioned the study last year to determine how much of a threat CCA posed to children, workers and consumers.

"They're going in the right direction," McLaughlin said. "But from our perspective, it's not the right way to get there."

Nelson sent a letter Thursday to EPA Administrator Chrstine Todd Whitman, urging the agency to finish and release the risk report.

At Nelson's urging, Congress passed legislation requiring the EPA to issue preliminary conclusions by Feb. 15.

Nelson said he wanted local officials in Florida to have some guidance about whether they should close parks and playgrounds where CCA-treated wood is used.

More than two dozen playgrounds closed in Florida last year because of arsenic fears, including six in Alachua County. The Alachua County Commission also ordered a phase-out of CCA on county land.

McLaughlin said EPA officials scheduled a meeting with Nelson on Monday.

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