Arsenic common in wood used in playgrounds 

With the staggering epidemic of obesity in our nation’s children, one would think that parents would be thrilled to see their kids romping on the jungle gym, playing with friends on the deck, or coloring at the backyard picnic table.

They would be, were it not for the pressure-treated wood used in more than 90 percent of all outdoor wooden structures in the United States. Sold at most retail home-building stores and known as extremely effective against the ravages of weather and insects, this wood is so hearty in part because it’s treated with arsenic, a toxic metallic element.

A nationwide sampling of 13 cities, including Missoula, found hazardous levels of arsenic on the surface of pressure-treated wood purchased at various retail stores, including Home Depot and Lowe’s Home Improvement Warehouse.

According to a report prepared by the Environmental Working Group and the Healthy Building Network, “An area of arsenic-treated wood the size of a 4-year-old’s hand contains an average of 120 times the amount of arsenic allowed in a six-ounce glass of water by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.” The report also says that “arsenic sticks to children’s hands when they play on treated wood, and is absorbed through the skin and ingested when they put their hands in their mouths.”

“In the last year or so, research has come out saying that arsenic is much more harmful than originally believed,” says Alexandra Gorman of Women’s Voices for the Earth, a Missoula-based environmental justice organization. “We are trying to step up awareness and encourage people to order arsenic testing kits [available from the EPA], then make decisions based on that information. … It seems absurd that there are guidelines for builders while handling this wood but there are few or no guidelines for kids playing on or around these structures after they’re built.”

According to Don Harris, a public relations manager at Home Depot, pressure-treated wood has been sold and used safely for years. “It is a huge commodity and we continue to sell it based on the EPA’s long-standing position that if the product is handled safely, it is fine. I think it’s good that environmental organizations raise awareness about things like this, but I’m tired of Home Depot being beat up over it. We take our direction from the EPA. I mean, if all the wood we sold was untreated, we would have other environmental organizations after us for cutting down too many trees.”

Though Home Depot does not carry alternatives to arsenic-treated wood, they will order them upon request. Those alternatives cost between 30 and 50 percent more than pressure-treated wood.

Arsenic-treated wood is already banned or strictly regulated in Australia, Germany, and Japan. It has also been banned in many zoos across the country, deemed “unsafe for animals.”

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