Retailers can sell remaining stock
Published: Saturday, January 24, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 23, 2004 at 11:56 p.m.
It's been three weeks since a federal phaseout officially ended production of arsenic-treated wood for residential use. For the first time, wood produced for backyard play sets, porches and fences will be free of a preservative considered by some to be a cancer risk to children.
But that doesn't mean arsenic-treated lumber is off store shelves, or even that it's no longer being made.
Throughout the country, and in home improvement stores in Gainesville, chromated copper arsenate, or CCA, remains. The green-tinted 2-by-4s, fence posts and pilings are still being stocked prominently in 84 Lumber, Lowes and other building supply stores.
And just last week, shoppers at the Home Depot store off Tower Road could even buy a pre-made CCA swing set for $195, complete with warning tags alerting parents that "arsenic is the pesticide applied to this wood."
"I think that perhaps a lot of people would be surprised that there is still a fair amount of CCA that is still going to be produced," said Timothy Townsend, a University of Florida environmental engineering professor and expert in arsenic-treated wood.
"A `phase down' might be more accurate than a `phaseout,' " Townsend added.
This is hardly the smooth transition to non-arsenic-treated lumber federal environmentalists promised two years ago.
For decades, CCA, a preservative used to treat lumber that protects it from mildew and rot, has been used in commercial and residential applications. Beginning in the 1970s and continuing into the mid-1980s, CCA use in residential settings surged, and today, telephone poles, railroad ties, decks and swing sets are often coated with the carcinogenic chemicals.
But in the late 1990s, studies began to suggest that significant amounts of the toxic preservative could leach from wood over time, posing a potential health risk to those who came in contact with the chemicals. In 1999, after a state-sanctioned study, Alachua County school officials decided to tear down the Kidspace playground at Terwilliger Elementary School in Gainesville when arsenic was found in soil nearby.
It was the first such discovery in the nation.
From there, the cries of protest grew until 2002, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced that CCA could no longer be produced for residential purposes, essentially banning one of America's favorite do-it-yourself building products.
When the announced phaseout came in February of that year, federal officials said they had struck a deal with the wood preserving industry to do away with CCA-treated wood for residential use by 2004.
Since then, numerous studies - including a recent EPA investigation - have lent credence to the government's phaseout decision, concluding that prolonged exposure to CCA increases the chances of developing life-threatening maladies.
A draft of the EPA study, for example, found that children between the ages of 1 and 6 who play frequently on arsenic-treated structures had as much as a one-in-100,000 chance of developing bladder, liver and lung cancer.
Despite what many see as a victory for consumers, much still remains unclear about the EPA ruling - now 23 months old.
For one, questions persist about what types of arsenic-treated wood will remain in stores.
While the ban has made it illegal for treaters to apply arsenic to wood intended for residential sale, wood treatment plants will continue to turn out plywood, agricultural fence posts, utility poles and commercial wood products with CCA.
Theoretically, some industry watchers say, there is nothing stopping shoppers from picking up CCA wood labeled for such applications and using it to build a backyard fence.
Others wonder what the replacements are, how and when they will find their way into the market.
Because of a provision worked into the phaseout agreement, producers were allowed to treat wood until Dec. 31, and stores can continue to sell it until supplies ran out. Many have stockpiled supplies that will last them months, industry watchers say.
"We can sell out our inventory" of CCA, said "Colonel" Hap Veley, owner of Central Builder Supplies in Gainesville. "We're just selling what we've got."
As owner of one of the first stores in Gainesville to begin stocking non-arsenic treated wood, Veley said that despite consumer concerns, the phaseout seems to be progressing smoothly, with sales of Alkaline Copper Quaternary (ACQ) and borate-based EnviroSafe Plus increasing.
"I guess the word has been out long enough," Veley said of the product shift. "Everybody knew it was going to go away."
Don Harrison, public relations manager for Home Depot's eastern division, agreed.
"It's been a very smooth transition so far," Harrison said.
Despite industry reports that alternative treatment methods cost more than arsenic-based preservatives, a store by store comparison of selected wood products at Home Depot and Lowes stores in Gainesville last week found little to no price difference between CCA and ACQ.
Other questions remain, including uncertainty over CCA's impacts on human health.
Even with the phaseout complete, the wood industry maintains CCA is safe, while a growing number of environmentalists disagree.
Finally, one last question seems to have risen above the rest: With the federal government's rule now in effect, what should homeowners do with arsenic-coated porches and picnic tables already in their back yards.
"The intent (of the phaseout) was to get it off the market for the residential consumer," said John Schert, director of the Florida Center for Solid and Hazardous Waste Management in Gainesville, a statewide study center hosted by the UF College of Engineering.
Realm of unknown
What happens next is anyone's guess.
Federal officials have little advice for homeowners who have already built with CCA. An EPA study is under way exploring a range of sealants to protect consumers from leaching arsenic, but results from that study are months away.
"It's a two-year study, and we're three months in, so we don't have a lot of data," Jim Jones, director of the EPA's pesticide office, which regulates CCA, told USA Today in December.
And what would happen if homeowners collectively decide to tear down their arsenic-treated structures and rebuild, opting for safer products - such as natural lumber or Alkaline Copper Quartenary, a copper-based preservative?
In Florida, at least, the environmental impacts could be significant, state and federal officials say.
The state Department of Environmental Protection estimates that by 2012 more than 30 million board feet of CCA lumber will be buried in Florida's landfills, burned in its incinerators and churned into its landscape mulch.
With a life span of nine to 13 years, some industry experts say a surge of discarded CCA wood dumped into state construction and demolition landfills - expected by some industry experts, given the media attention CCA has received - could lead to ground- or surface-water pollution, further complicating the disposal issue.
"The DEP analyzed massive amounts of data from groundwater monitoring wells around unlined (construction and demolition) landfills," Schert said. "They found some wells that had hits for arsenic. I understand that they are very concerned about the arsenic that is showing up in those monitoring wells."
For now, however, much remains unknown about the after-effects of the arsenic-wood phaseout. Next month, the Florida Interdisciplinary Center for Environmentally Sound Solutions - a National Science Foundation-funded center located at UF - will host a conference in Orlando to explore the impacts of CCA on the environment.
Waiting for 2004
The state Department of Environmental Protection also continues to explore groundwater questions, and has begun to tackle the issue of CCA disposal.
But for some, even with the uncertainty, 2004 couldn't have come soon enough.
"On a personal level, I've been waiting for the new arsenic-free wood to be readily available on the market because there are some projects that I wanted to build for my daughter, Kate," Schert said. "I have been waiting about two years for the new arsenic-free wood to come out on the market at the big box stores."
Greg Bruno can be reached at (352) 374-5026 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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