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Wood Treaters to Switch to New Chemicals

Chemical manufacturers reach voluntary agreement with EPA to halt production of CCA by December 2003.

By TimberLine Staff
Date Posted: 3/6/2002


Chromated copper arsenate (CCA) is on the way out as the principal chemical used to treat and preserve wood in the U.S.

The three chemical companies that make CCA reached a voluntary agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to phase out production by December 2003. The phase-out period will allow time for the estimated 350 wood-treating plants around the country to re-tool and switch to alternative treating chemicals.

The agreement applies to treated wood products used for homes and playgrounds but will not impact production of CCA-treated wood for utility poles, guard rails and other commercial applications. By January 2004, the EPA will prohibit CCA-treated wood for playground equipment and residential applications, such as decks, picnic tables, fencing and landscape timbers.

The elimination of the use of CCA for preserved wood is expected to dramatically reshape the treated wood industry and require companies to spend millions of dollars to modify their facilities.

CCA contains arsenic, a known human carcinogen. Wood treated with CCA has come under heightened scrutiny in recent months from public health and environmental advocates.

EPA and industry officials who negotiated the agreement said there is no conclusive evidence that CCA-treated wood is a threat to public health. However, industry officials conceded that heightened scrutiny over CCA spurred demand for alternative wood preservatives that do not contain arsenic.

"Basically, we did it for market reasons," said John Taylor, vice president of Osmose Inc., one of the three chemical makers of CCA that agreed to phase out production.

New wood preservatives already are available and are marketed under such names as ACQ Preserve®, NatureWood®, and Wolmanized® Natural Select™ wood. They are copper-based preservatives but without arsenic. The price difference of wood treated with alternatives will be about 10-20% higher.

The EPA will continue a study that seeks to determine whether children who repeatedly come into contact with CCA face increased risk of cancer, as some environmental and consumer groups contend.

In announcing the agreement, EPA officials stressed that people should take precautions such as washing their hands after coming into contact with CCA-treated wood and never place food directly on CCA-treated wood. However, agency officials said they do not believe there is any need to remove or replace structures made with CCA-treated wood.

Parker Brugge, executive director of the Treated Wood Council, an industry group, said "we absolutely stand by
the safety of wood products treated with EPA-approved preservatives, including CCA." The group also continues to
support "rigorous scientific research,
which has consistently upheld the safety of CCA-treated wood when used as
recommended."

"The fundamental safety of preserved wood has not changed," Brugge added, "but perceptions in the marketplace have."

Environmental groups generally lauded the decision by the three chemical companies, but they urged companies to stop selling CCA-treated wood before the end of 2003. Jay Feldman, executive director of the National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides, said the EPA should move to ban all hazardous wood preservatives, which he said have been linked to cancer and other illness. The agreement fails to address a major public health issue posed by the continued presence of CCA in wood products in millions of homes and parks and recreation areas, he said.

CCA has been used in the forest products industry for decades. Pressure treatment with CCA protects wood against attack from insects and fungi, extending its normal life of about two years up to 40 years. It has benefitted the environment and helped to conserve natural resources by extending the normal life of wood in outdoor applications. In the U.S., it is said to conserve the equivalent of 226 million trees alone each year. It also has helped to conserve less renewable forest resources, such as redwoods, since it is used to treat pine trees and other more readily renewable species.

Until recently, CCA withstood scrutiny over health concerns, including concerns about arsenic leaching from preserved wood. As recently as last year, Dr. Barbara Beck, a toxicologist for Gradient Corporation, said, "Even with assumptions that likely overestimate the risks, our assessment concludes that the estimated health risks from the inorganic arsenic in CCA-treated wood fall within the Environmental Protection Agency’s acceptable risk limits." Dr. Gilbert Ross, medical and executive director of the American Council on Science and Health, said in 2000, "We have found that there is no risk to human health...there has never been any evidence that a human being has ever been harmed by it. There is no evidence that children are exposed to toxic levels of arsenic from playing on pressure treated wood."

The EPA banned most arsenic-containing pesticides and wood treatments but approved and continued to approve CCA registration. In the mid-1980s the agency made an agreement with manufacturers and wood treaters that they provide ‘consumer information sheets’ to retailers and consumers of CCA-treated wood. The information sheets were to contain a warning about risks and the proper way to handle treated wood, but this aspect of the agreement was not implemented.

After heightened public scrutiny last fall over EPA’s review of arsenic in drinking water, the agency and CCA manufacturers entered into an agreement that all CCA-treated wood would have a warning label attached. The new labels suggest that builders using the material should wear gloves, goggles and face masks.

In recent months, news media reports have raised concern about possible long-term risk to children who play on CCA-treated playground equipment and possible risk to carpenters who work with the wood. A report issued by the Environmental Working Group and the Healthy Building Network criticized Home Depot and Lowe’s for selling lumber treated with CCA. Several class-action lawsuits have been filed over CCA-treated wood. Lawmakers in several states proposed restrictions on CCA-treated wood. A leading custom designer of community-build playgrounds and public facilities chose a replacement for CCA treatment. The National Lumber and Building Materials Dealers Association recently warned members that they should consider "all options," including product liability and recall insurance, "if regulatory, legal and public relations developments result in increased exposures for these products." The European Union, which represents 15 counties, is considering a ban of CCA. And the EPA and the Consumer Product Safety Commission have been conducting an assessment of the risk of CCA lumber.

"The pressure-treated wood industry has been stunned," said Dave Koenig, editor of Building Products Digest, a trade magazine that circulates in the Southeast and has followed the debate over CCA. "They never thought there’d be that much pressure to do away with the product or restrict it."

Manufacturers have been fighting several class-action lawsuits that allege injury and wrongful death as a result of contact with CCA treatment. A voluntary phase-out is viewed by some as a way for the manufacturers to avoid any legal entanglements that could result from the EPA risk assessment, although industry sources have denied such claims.




 






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