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Arsenic-treated wood elicits response

By Judith Scherr Daily Planet staff
Saturday May 26, 2001

Responding to claims made Wednesday that Berkeley is among the municipalities using arsenic-treated playground equipment, the city’s parks department is working over the holiday weekend to seal a number of wood play structures. 

Until they are treated, structures known to contain arsenic and others that might contain this potentially cancer-causing chemical used to preserve the wood, are cordoned off with yellow “caution” tape. 

Parks Director Lisa Caronna said Friday that city employees will be working overtime to coat the equipment to seal in the hazardous chemicals.  

Targeted structures will include those known to contain arsenic and others as well. “If we don’t know, we’ll coat them,” she said. 

In addition to arsenic-treated structures, Caronna said the city is also coating equipment whose wood has been injected with pentachloropheol and creosote, both potentially harmful preservatives which state guidelines say must also be sealed in. 

Caronna said Wednesday the city had inadvertently lapsed in fulfilling the state mandate to coat its chemically-treated structures every two years. “It’s quite upsetting,” she said at the time. 

The Washington, D.C.,-based Environmental Working Group and the Healthy Building Network released a study Wednesday, which claims that “potentially hazardous amounts of arsenic in chromated copper arsenate leach out of pressure-treated lumber, where it may be ingested or absorbed by people or animals, or may contaminate water sources or soil beneath the wood.”  

Chromated copper arsenate contains 22 percent pure arsenic, the report says and arsenic is classified as a “known human carcinogen” by the U.S. EPA and the World Health Organization. The report says contact with the chemically-treated wood is particularly dangerous to children, because they frequently put their hands into their mouths and because they do not readily excrete the chemical. 

Play structures at King Middle School, Cedar-Rose, Codornices, Strawberry Creek, Live Oak parks and the Haskell-Mabel mini-park will be coated. Those structures connected to the play area will also be coated, including bollards, railroad ties and railings, Caronna said. 

Bill Walker of the Environmental Working Group said coating the structures is a good first step, but the chemicals still leach from the wood. Caronna said her goal is to replace the contaminated structures within two years. 

Picnic tables will not be sealed, Caronna said, noting that since they are not in contact with the soil, Berkeley does not have chemically-treated tables. 

Moreover, “the city is making an inventory of all the wood on all the structures,” Caronna said. “We’ll verify if any (others) need coating.” 

A number of the city’s wood structures were purchased from Big Toys, manufactured by Pacific Playgrounds in Olympia, Washington. Don Freeman, a spokesperson for the company said Friday that there was no arsenic in the company’s products, “just chromated copper arsenate.” When a reporter asked if the compound contained arsenic, Freeman did not respond directly, but noted that the preservative was government-approved.  

Asked if he believed the preservative was dangerous, Freeman said: “We are aware there are questions. We have chosen to use a process approved by the Consumer Product Safety Commission for use in playgrounds.”  

The EWG has petitioned the commission to ban chromated copper arsenate-treated wood.  

New York-based Adventure Systems also manufactures play structures with the arsenic preservative. Danny Bears, president of the company said, while he did not believe the chemical treatment to be dangerous, Adventure Systems has begun to substitute untreated materials for the parts of its structures that get a lot of use by children. Bears added that he plans to get further training on the question. He said he wasn’t surprised that California requires the every-two-year coatings.  

“California leads the trend,” he said.