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Manufacturer refuses refund of arsenic-laced playground

By Daniela Mohor Daily Planet Staff
Thursday July 26, 2001

A local environmental group recently filed a notice of violation against a playground manufacturer who sold an arsenic-treated playstructure to a Berkeley school.  

The group says the company did not appropriately warn the school about the health risks its products present. 

Exposure to arsenic can cause cancer, heart problems, diabetes, and endocrine system problems. 

The Center for Environmental Health, a nonprofit environmental protection organization, took similar legal action against 11 companies in June after a national report told of the serious health risks that wooden structures treated with a preservative made of chromium, copper and arsenic present.  

Further investigation led the CEH to send notices of violation to five other manufacturers earlier this month. 

One of them, Kompan Inc., was brought to the organization’s attention by a group of parents and administrators of New School, a nonprofit institution located on Bonita Avenue in Berkeley.  

After discovering that its new play structure was treated with CCA, the school unsuccessfully tried to return the product to its manufacturer. 

But Kompan refused any refund for the $2,700 structure. 

“I declined to do that because the product that we sold fully complies with all the safety regulations,” said Tim Madeley, Kompan’s general manager.  

Kompan’s products, Madeley said, are approved by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Environmental Protection Agency and the California Department of Health. 

Outraged, New School turned to the CEH for advice. 

The CEH notices were both filed on the basis of Proposition 65, a law designed to limit public exposure to possibly hazardous chemicals by mandating consumer-product warning labels.  

The organization’s notice of violation states that “no clear and reasonable warning is provided with these products regarding the carcinogenic or reproductive hazards of [arsenic and chromium].” 

CEH said Kompan reacted positively to the notice.  

“They contacted our lawyers immediately and they have decided to completely stop using CCA in their structures,” said CEH toxics researcher, Alise Cappel. Kompan, Cappel said, offered to start using a type of wood manufactured by Arch Chemicals and sold under the trade name “Wolman E.” That product is free of CCA. 

Madeley, however, said Kompan’s decision to use an alternative material was not the result of the CEH violation, but to reassure concerned customers. 

“It’s not because we think that CCA is unsafe in any way,” said Madeley. “But since people have concerns about it, we would like to use something different.” 

Eric Somers, legal counsel for CEH, said New School did not come up in the conversation he had with Kompan. But the CEH, he said, hopes to negotiate with Kompan to find a solution for the school. 

“One of the goals of CEH would be to replace the play structure and take the CCA-treated one to a landfill,” said Somers. 

New School administrators, however, said the CEH has not contacted them about that possibility.  

They are sticking with their initial plans to drop the structure, with a letter of complaint, at Kompan’s distribution center in Forestville as soon as next week, said New School administrative assistant Merlyn Katechis. 

The controversy surrounding the safety of wooden play structures has been an ongoing issue nationally and locally.  

In Berkeley, the playgrounds of Cedar and Rose , King Middle School and Codornices parks were recently coated with a sealant to avoid risks of arsenic contamination.  

The Parks and Waterfront Department plans to replace them within five years.