Mother Earth Living

Poisonwood Rivals: How Exposure to Arsenic Can Be Harmful

Harmful amounts of arsenic, which the Environmental Protection Agency has classified as a “known human carcinogen,” have been found on pressure-treated wood for sale at Home Depot and Lowe’s Home Improvement Warehouse stores nationwide, according to a report by the Environmental Working Group and the Healthy Building Network. Children and their families are at the greatest risk from treated wood, known as copper chromium arsenic (CCA) lumber, because it is common in playgrounds, picnic benches, and decks. It is found in 90 percent of all outdoor wooden structures in the United States. “One out of every 500 children who regularly play on swing sets and decks made from arsenic-treated wood, or one child in an average size elementary school, will develop lung or bladder cancer late in life as a result of these exposures,” the report states.

CCA, which is used to protect wood from rot and insects, contains 22 percent pure arsenic. According to the report, one twelve-foot length of pressure-treated wood contains about an ounce of arsenic–enough to kill 250 people. The report recommends that the EPA ban arsenic and calls on Home Depot and Lowe’s to stop selling CCA-treated wood. The EPA is currently reviewing CCA and plans to release “a focused assessment” of the threat.

In the meantime, Seventh Generation’s Non-Toxic Times recommends the following steps (facing page) to protect children and others from arsenic exposure.

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  • Choose playgrounds where equipment is made from plastic or metal. Be suspicious of wood playsets.
  • Be wary of sandboxes made of wood because any arsenic present in the wood can leach into the sand it holds, exposing children who play there to a disproportionate risk.
  • Cover wooden picnic tables with a plastic-coated tablecloth.
  • Make sure children wash their hands after playing on wooden equipment, especially before eating.
  • Seal CCA-treated wood structures annually with polyurethane or another hard lacquer. Insist that wooden playground equipment in public and private parks receive the same treatment.
  • For new construction, use wood that does not contain CCA. A variety of safe substitutes (including a treatment of arsenic- and chromium-free “alkaline copper quat,” known as ACQ) are available.

–Excerpted with permission from The Non-Toxic Times from Seventh Generation; free subscription available at

  • Published on Mar 1, 2002
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