Local News

Is Danger Lurking In Your Back Yard?

Posted May 8, 2002

— Most of us have it somewhere around our homes, but now pressure-treated wood used for back yard decks and playgrounds is being banned by the EPA.

The wood can be found in neighborhood playgrounds, back yard decks and picnic tables. Day after day, cart loads of it are sold from store shelves. However, most people do not know that the wood can be toxic.

The wood is treated with a powerful pesticide called Chromated Copper Arsenate, or CCA.

Jeannette and Dan Averett found out how dangerous CCA can be when they built their deck.

"Very few people realize that it's arsenic in there. I had no idea," Jeannette Averett said. "I wonder how many people have been sick from it and not known it."

The couple's 2-year-old daughter and a pasture full of cows were poisoned.

"It's a very potent carcinogen," said Dr. Luanne Williams, a toxicologist with the state Department of Health and Human Services.

The agency is now warning people about its risks.

The EPA banned CCA-treated lumber in February and ordered companies to stop selling it by the end of next year.

The order came after years of controversy, a massive closing of playgrounds in Florida last summer, and multiple studies that found arsenic leaches from the wood.

"What we know is that when rain penetrates the surface of the wood, it lifts the arsenic up to the surface," Williams said.

Williams said that is why health officials now believe CCA poses the greatest risk to children. They crawl across it, hang on it, and swing on it. They get arsenic all over their hands and then do what most children do -- put their hands, now treated with arsenic, in their mouths.

Adults can get sick too, from inhaling sawdust and absorbing arsenic through the skin. However, the most toxic risk of CCA-treated wood is when it is burned. Arsenic is released not only into the air, but it concentrates in the ashes. Just one tablespoon of ash contains a lethal dose of arsenic, which is how the Averett family found out how toxic the wood can be.

"I never really considered the difference in burning regular wood versus treated wood," Dan Averett said.

After building their deck, Averett burned the scraps and dumped the ashes in the pasture behind their home. Their cows ate the ashes, and the next day Averett noticed they were acting strangely.

"They were basically walking sideways, basically staggering while they walked," he said.

Within two days, nine cows were dead, and the couple's 2-year-old daughter, Amanda, who had been running barefoot in the yard, was sick.

"She was just doubling over [from the] cramping. She would just collapse and scream and cry," Jeanette Averett said.

Tests on Amanda, on the cows and the pasture confirmed high levels of arsenic.

"It was scary. I didn't know how bad it was or what was going to happen," Averett said.

Amanda, now 8 years old, seems fine.

"It could have been her, because we wouldn't have gotten her away from the source, we wouldn't have known," Averett said. "We could have had a dead child instead of dead cows."

"People need to listen to the message, they need to take precautions," Williams said.

The government is telling sellers that they need to alert consumers about the dangers of the wood when they buy it. If brochures are not available where the wood is sold, ask for that information.

The pressure-treated wood still being sold is tagged with some information, including a warning of the chemicals and a warning not to burn it.

Rather than removing existing playground structures or decks built with CCA-treated wood, the N.C. Division of Public Health

offers the following recommendations

to protect children, pets and others from possible arsenic exposure:

  • Seal existing treated-wood structures every 1 to 2 years with a weather-resistant coating of polyurethane or an oil-based, semi-transparent stain. Penetrating sealants form a barrier on the wood surface that can significantly reduce the amount of arsenic released from the wood while also protecting and preserving the wood.
  • Keep children and pets away from under-deck areas, where arsenic may have leached.
  • Make sure children wash their hands thoroughly after playing on wood structures, especially before eating or drinking.
  • Food should not come into direct contact with any treated wood. Cover tables with tablecloths.
  • Treated wood should not be used where it may come into direct or indirect contact with drinking water.
  • Do not sand CCA structures or power-wash by highly abrasive means.
  • Do not use CCA-treated wood for picnic tables, garden beds or compost bins, and do not grow edible plants near CCA-treated decks.
  • Do not burn CCA-treated wood, as toxic chemicals may be released in the smoke and become concentrated in the ashes.
  • Cut CCA-treated wood outdoors and wear a dust mask, goggles and gloves. Clean up all sawdust, scraps and other construction debris and dispose of in the trash.
  • After working with CCA-treated wood, wash exposed skin, especially hands, with soap and water before eating, drinking or using tobacco products. Wash work clothes separately from other household clothing before wearing them again.
  • Homeowners who are planning to add or repair a deck, playground or other outdoor structures should look for arsenic-free alternatives such as redwood, cedar, arsenic-free treated wood, plastics, composite materials or metal.
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