Choosing Safe Lumber

Lynn Keiley discusses methods for choosing safe lumber for your backyard, includes information on testing existing structures and finding safe wood alternatives.

| February/March 2003

Learn what you need to know when choosing safe lumber for your backyard structures.

For years, the wood industry told us that wood treated with chromated copper arsenate (CCA) was perfectly safe, even as studies indicated that treated timbers expose us to arsenic, a known carcinogen linked to skin, bladder and liver cancers.

Lulled by wood companies' misleading assurances and seduced by CCA-treated wood's potential to last longer than untreated wood, people used this pressure-treated wood to build everything from decks to fences to raised garden beds — even children's play equipment. The numbers are staggering: More than 90 percent of outdoor wooden structures in the United States are made with arsenic-treated lumber. Research showed that children who frolicked on those play sets, or dug in the soil underneath them, could pick up large amounts of arsenic on their skin. When their little hands inevitably ended up in their mouths, that arsenic entered their bodies.

Last February, the industry bowed to public pressure and agreed to voluntarily phase out the use of CCA. Beginning in January 2004, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will not allow CCA for residential wood use. Yet the EPA told us that existing poison-treated structures do not pose any risk. "EPA does not believe there is any reason to remove or replace CCA-treated structures, including decks or playground equipment," the agency stated.

Wrong again. Tired of the EPA's scientifically baseless assurances, the folks at the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit environmental research organization, along with the Healthy Building Network and the Environmental Quality Institute at the University of North Carolina-Asheville, supplied people with testing kits to determine if arsenic wiped off their CCA-treated structures and if the soil underneath the structures was contaminated.

The results were shocking — even on wood tip to 15 years old, the amount of arsenic that wiped off on an area equivalent to the size of a 4-year-olds hand exceeded what the EPA considers acceptable in our drinking water. Soil samples taken from two out of five back yards and parks had enough arsenic to qualify as EPA Superfund cleanup sites. (Visit for more information on the studies.)

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