Good science, consumer pressure and 20,000 e-mails to Home Depot combined to end an industry practice that most Americans probably didn’t even know existed.
Earlier this month the treated wood industry announced that it will soon discontinue the sale of arsenic-treated wood at the retail level.
Women’s Voices for the Earth (WVE), a Missoula-based environmental organization, was one of a nationwide network of environmental and consumer groups that pressured the industry into phasing out arsenic-treated wood.
The industry decision came several months after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rejected efforts to ban the product. The decision is a “victory for consumers and families that will protect our children from unnecessary and dangerous arsenic exposure,” says Bryony Schwan, national campaign director for WVE.
Arsenic-treated wood is used in most outdoor wood products such as picnic tables, playground equipment and decks. WVE estimates that about 75 billion board feet of arsenic-treated wood exist in the nation’s playgrounds, parks and backyards.
“Something like 90 percent of outdoor wood used is treated with arsenic,” says Alexandra Gorman, project coordinator with WVE.
Recent research has found that arsenic, which is used to prevent rot and pest infestation, can leach out of the wood, into the soil and onto the hands of people who touch it. Children are particularly vulnerable because they can come into direct contact with the wood by touching it and then by putting their hands in their mouths. They are also more likely to absorb higher amounts of arsenic because of their small size.
The National Academy of Sciences has found that exposure to arsenic can cause cancer of the lung, bladder and skin, and is suspected of causing other cancers, including kidney, prostate and nasal passage cancer.
Japan, Germany and Australia have already either banned or strictly regulated arsenic-treated wood, and American zoos have banned it as unsafe for animals.
Gorman says the network of environmental and consumer groups lobbied the industry and retailers to discontinue the sale of the wood, sending 20,000 e-mails just to Home Depot alone. “It was a lot of back and forth, a lot of groups petitioning to get it banned,” she says.
Now WVE and the other groups are pushing for a risk assessment to determine the public health risk posed by the billions of board feet of arsenic-treated wood in public and private places.
In the meantime, Gorman recommends that people take a few simple precautions to minimize their exposure. Arsenic can be sealed into picnic tables with the use of oil-based stains. The wood can also be covered with tablecloths or replaced altogether. And people are advised to wash their hands after touching treated wood, she says.