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EPA Reverses Course: Arsenic-Treated Playground Equipment Poses Unacceptable Lifetime Cancer Risk to Children

For Immediate Release: 
Thursday, November 13, 2003

WASHINGTON — The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) today released the most comprehensive study to date of the health risks of arsenic-treated wood, which has been used for decades to build decks, playsets and other outdoor structures in backyards and parks nationwide. The findings contradict former Administrator Whitman’s statement from February 2002, in which she said that currently in-use structures posed no dangers to children. According to today’s draft risk assessment, 90% of all children face a greater than one in one million cancer risk from their exposure to arsenic-treated wood, the historic level of concern for the Agency. In southern states, 10 percent of all children face a cancer risk that is 100 times higher.

This study validates the concerns expressed last week by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) when it decided that EPA’s earlier ban on arsenic-treated wood made it unnecessary for CPSC to ban its use in playsets. ÊHowever, the CPSC’s three Commissioners all issued statements expressing concern about cancer risk from existing structures built with arsenic-treated wood. ÊAt the same time, the CPSC announced that it is initiating studies of wood sealants as a way to give consumers ways to protect their children from arsenic leaching from backyard decks and playsets.

EWG Vice President for Research Jane Houlihan said, “This study confirms that we need to protect children from arsenic-treated wood at playgrounds and in their backyards around the country.”

Arsenic-treated wood is made using chromium copper arsenate (CCA), a pesticide that the EPA and the wood industry agreed last year to phase out of commerce. Arsenic is a known human carcinogen, with which children come into contact by touching the wood and either absorbing it through their skin or putting their hands into their mouths. This exposure increases children’s risk of lung and bladder cancer later in life.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has released two studies detailing the risks to children of arsenic-treated wood and is the only nonprofit organization to offer parents a home test kit to have a laboratory analyze the amount of arsenic on their decks - and in the soil beneath them. The EPA largely adopted EWG’s methodology for studying arsenic-treated wood exposure.

According to Houlihan, consumers should act now to reduce children’s exposure to arsenic-treated wood. People should either replace arsenic-treated decks and play structures or seal them at least every six months.

EWG is a nonprofit research organization dedicated to using the power of information to protect human health and the environment. EWG’s research on arsenic-treated wood, including the EPA and CPSC’s statements, can be found at https://www.ewg.org.

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Editor’s note: Below is an excerpt from the EPA’s news release of 2/12/02, announcing the negotiated phaseout (Link):

EPA has not concluded that CCA-treated wood poses unreasonable risks to the public for existing CCA-treated wood being used around or near their homes or from wood that remains available in stores. EPA does not believe there is any reason to remove or replace CCA-treated structures, including decks or playground equipment. EPA is not recommending that existing structures or surrounding soils be removed or replaced.

The CPSC Commissioner’s statements are available at https://www.ewg.org/node/8289.