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Groups challenge arsenic in play structures

By Judith Scherr Daily Planet staff
Thursday May 24, 2001

Climbing structures are great for kids’ motor coordination, but wood structures preserved with arsenic may present a hidden danger. 

“It’s a dirty secret in the wood-products industry,” said Bill Walker, of the Washington, D.C.,-based Environmental Working Group, speaking Wednesday at a press conference, held beside an arsenic-treated play structure at Cedar-Rose Park in north Berkeley.  

“Arsenic is a serious threat to health,” especially for children who put their hands into their mouths frequently and do not excrete toxins as readily as adults might, Walker said. 

Walker joined representatives from the Healthy Building Network and the Center for Environmental Health to expose the problem, talk about a lawsuit they hope will lead to its resolution and to herald a study co-authored by the EWG and the Healthy Building Network: “Poisoned Playgrounds, Arsenic in ‘Pressure-Treated’ Wood.”  

The study says wood used outdoors in play equipment is injected with chromated copper arsenate, a mixture of chromium, copper and arsenic, to protect it from insect attacks and fungal decay. The report says the substance poses both an acute poisoning hazard and long-term risks such as lung, bladder and skin cancer.  

While the thrust of the message was that this is a nationwide problem, Walker used the play structure at the north Berkeley park as an example. He said that in 1978, the state Department of Health Services tested the play structure at Cedar-Rose Park and found elevated levels of the toxin. 

Consequently, a law was passed requiring all state, city and county play structures to be coated every two years with a nontoxic sealer. 

The city of Berkeley and numerous others may have failed to do so, Walker said. 

Parks Department Director Lisa Caronna was quick to react. In an initial phone conversation, she said she was unaware of the danger and of the law. After making calls to previous parks directors – Caronna came in as director in 1995 – she found that, in fact, the city had coated the structures in the early 1980s. However, at some point, the biannual coating stopped. 

“It’s not a good thing,” Caronna said. “Quite honestly, it’s quite upsetting.”  

By Friday, Caronna said the four older wood structures – the one at Cedar and Rose Park, two at King Middle School Park, and one at Codornices Park – will be coated with two layers of sealant. She added that these structures are slated for replacement over the next five years, but she will try to get them replaced in two. 

Following a hazard assessment, 26 play structures have been replaced since 1995, she said. 

Walker said that was a good start, but the sealant does not completely protect the children and, if the structures are not to be removed, they should at least have warning signs. 

“Arsenic shouldn’t be in the wood in the first place,” said Walker, noting that there are non-treated woods, such as (sustainably-grown) redwood and metal or plastic that can be used in playgrounds. 

Many of the companies that make arsenic-treated wood already make safer products intended for European markets, Walker said. 

The Center for Environmental Health is taking the issue to the courts. It filed legal notice earlier this month of its intent to sue 11 manufacturers of arsenic-treated wooden playground equipment, under California’s Proposition 65, unless Attorney General Bill Lockyer intervenes within 60 days. 

A successful lawsuit would force manufacturers to stop using arsenic in wood intended for playground structures or, minimally, to warn the public of its risks. 

On the national level, the EWG has asked the Consumer Product Safely Commission to ban the use of arsenic-treated wood in playground equipment.  

Sen. Barbara Boxer held hearings on the question last week and issued a statement Wednesday: “The science shows that when ingested arsenic can lead to cancer, nerve damage, reproductive damage and sometimes even death,” Boxer wrote. “Parents should feel safe when they turn on the tap and when they send their kids outside to play. We need action now.” 

Jo Anne Skinner of EWG spoke as a mother of two children under the age of five. “As a parent, we do everything we can to make sure our children are safe. We buy safety locks for our cupboards,” she said. “It’s a tragedy there’s parks that are poisoning our kids.” 

The Daily Planet was unable to reach the children’s playground structure manufacturers targeted in the lawsuit for comment before deadline.