Arsenic is a notoriously deadly poison, but for twenty years it has been applied to wood used to build playgrounds and outdoor decks in neighborhoods across the United States.  These poisoned structures, where children and families play and eat, are the largest source of arsenic exposure for an overwhelming majority of Americans. 


Yet this source of arsenic will be virtually abolished as a result of a major victory won by the Healthy Building Network and its allies.  A campaign against arsenic-treated wood spearheaded by HBN led the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to announce last year that the manufacture and sale of arsenic-treated wood for most residential uses will cease by the end of 2003.


“The wood treatment industry and the EPA finally reached the common sense conclusion that the best way to protect kids from arsenic wood was not to affix a poison label to it, but to eliminate it,” said Paul Bogart of the Healthy Building Network.

Arsenic-treated wood is banned or strictly regulated in several nations in the world, including Japan, Germany, Australia, and others. Despite evidence that arsenic was leaching into groundwater and contaminating land, each year nearly 6.4 billion board feet of wood treated with a chromium-copper-arsenic (CCA) formula was created, fueling the growth of a $4 billion industry. 


Years of effort to put more stringent restrictions on arsenic-treated wood in the United States had failed due to the Environmental Protection Agency’s policy to allow industries to largely police themselves. Even in the era of voluntary compliance and self-monitoring, the relationship between the wood treatment industry and the EPA stands out as particularly cozy. Historically, efforts to put more stringent restrictions on arsenic-treated wood in response to mounting scientific evidence of its dangers were thwarted by EPA’s exemption of treated wood from hazardous waste laws and a voluntary labeling program that both the agency and the wood treatment industry publicly acknowledged as a failure.
The Healthy Building Network’s campaign against arsenic-treated wood began by initiating a public dialogue about its toxicity, especially to children, and the availability of safer alternatives.  HBN, its allies in environmental and public health organizations publicized existing scientific research that found arsenic rubbed off playground equipment onto children’s hands and was absorbed and ingested when children put their hands into their mouths. HBN and others filed a petition with the Consumer Product Safety Board urging it to ban arsenic-treated wood from playgrounds on health and safety grounds. 


The pressure against manufacturers and retailers of arsenic-treated wood escalated. Independently conducted research by HBN and the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found that an area of arsenic-treated wood the size of a four-year-old’s hand contained an average of 120 times the amount of arsenic allowed in a 6 ounce glass of water by the EPA.  To keep pressure on the industry to go arsenic-free, EWG and HBN distributed testing kits across the country, so state-based activists could test lumber sold locally.  New test results led some retailers to pledge to stop stocking the arsenic product. 


Lowes and Home Depot, the nation’s two largest retailers of arsenic-treated wood, became the targets of a grassroots consumer campaign, which resulted in tens of thousands of cards from across the nation inundating the stores requesting alternatives to the poison wood.


“More than 20,000 Americans sent a clear message to Lowes and Home Depot telling them to stop selling arsenic-treated wood,” said Lynn Thorp, of Clean Water Action, which coordinated the effort.  “This victory proves that when citizens demand safe choices and healthy alternatives, manufacturers, retailers, and governments listen.”


A successful paid advertising campaign was launched against Home Depot, contrasting the use of arsenic treated wood in playgrounds with the prohibition on arsenic wood that had been instituted by most of the nation’s premier zoos.


“We wanted to draw public attention to the fact that children were permitted to eat and play on poisoned wood, but it was considered too dangerous for zoo animals,” said Bogart.


Within one year, HBN’s campaign against arsenic-treated wood achieved success when the EPA announced a phase-out of the product.  While the wood-treatment industry has conceded defeat on arsenic, there is resistance to moving to less toxic alternatives.   One manufacturer has petitioned the EPA to permit wood treatment with another toxic chemical and human health hazard– hexavalent chromium. An EPA decision is expected this fall.  HBN is mobilizing its networks to ensure that retailers stick to their commitment to offer safe lumber products, and that the EPA gives its seal of approval only to safe alternatives.


“There is no chance that HBN will allow the wood treatment industry to trade one poison for another,” said Bogart.   “The right thing for the EPA to do is to prevent products laced with toxic chemicals from ever making it to the marketplace.”


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