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Protect the public

Officials at the city, state and federal level need to act to protect children and adults from the health threat arising from treated lumber that contains arsenic.

Fanciful playgrounds made of wood have been erected by community groups throughout Florida, evoking nostalgia for more innocent times. It is safe to say that adults involved in those projects never realized they could be exposing children to arsenic poisoning.

In recent stories, Times staff writer Julie Hauserman has reported that lumber treated with chromated copper arsenate, or CCA, is used extensively in playgrounds, decks and even picnic tables. The treated lumber is especially popular in Florida, where termites and moisture destroy untreated wood.

The problem: CCA-treated lumber contains arsenic, which can be ingested, absorbed through the skin or inhaled in sawdust or smoke. A pinch of pure arsenic can be lethal, and continued exposure to even small amounts can cause cancer.

As part of Hauserman's inquiry, the Times hired a laboratory to test soil near in-ground posts at five wooden playgrounds in the Tampa Bay area. All of the samples contained arsenic _ which had leached from the wood _ at levels considered unsafe by the state. At Discovery Playground in Tarpon Springs, the arsenic level was six times the state limit for neighborhood soil. When the city of Tarpon Springs tested the playground, it found even higher levels of arsenic in two locations. Yet the city waited a month before closing the playground.

How serious is the threat? Opinions vary. Marc Leathers, whose company helped build all five wooden playgrounds tested, said studies on treated lumber are contradictory. "I wouldn't make a picnic table out of it and eat on it, but if you use precautions and maintain it properly, you can come up with a safe playground." That is hardly reassuring, especially considering that many children put their hands in their mouths while playing. The Connecticut Health Department issued a warning three years ago that said "children should be prevented from playing underneath CCA-treated structures."

The threat reaches beyond playgrounds. Hauserman interviewed several adults who became seriously ill after contact with treated lumber. Even smoke from burning the wood can be toxic. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency once considered banning CCA-treated lumber or marking it with a warning label, but decided instead to let the industry voluntarily inform buyers of precautions, such as the need to wear gloves, dust mask and goggles while working with the lumber and to wash skin and clothes afterward. Rarely is the consumer given such information, however.

There is a threat to the environment, as well. Treated lumber that ends up in unlined landfills could pollute drinking water.

Officials at the city, state and federal level need to act to protect children and adults from CCA-treated products. While the threat to children from playgrounds built with treated lumber may be hard to quantify, it is real. Local governments should temporarily close such playgrounds until they can keep children away from areas where arsenic readings are excessive. Longer term, local governments should replace the lumber at public playgrounds with safe wood products or plastic and consider an ordinance prohibiting its future use.

The EPA is doing a new review of CCA-treated lumber, and this time it should protect the public. Other countries have banned those products and there are safer chemicals that can be used to treat wood. The EPA should also consider a ban. Until the review is done, the agency should require notification of the dangers to every buyer of treated lumber.

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