FRIDAY, Nov. 14, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- U.S. officials have released a report concluding that children who have frequent contact with arsenic-treated wood -- such as is commonly found in playground equipment, play sets and decks -- have an increased risk of developing cancer.
Specifically, the findings, which were released by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), suggest that 90 percent of children with repeated exposure face a cancer risk of greater than one in 1 million, which is considered the threshold for concern.
In southern states, where warm weather allows children to play outdoors more often, the hazard appears to be even greater, with 10 percent of children facing a cancer risk that is 100 times higher than children in the general population, according to an analysis conducted by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C.
The risk from arsenic is especially great for lung, bladder, and skin cancers.
Although the EPA says the report is preliminary and subject to review by a scientific advisory panel in December, Richard Wiles, EWG's senior vice president and co-founder, notes the draft risk assessment is "preliminary only in the sense that it's going to be presented to peer review. This is actually quite a good piece of work and incredibly thorough, and there's reason to believe it's not going to be changed very much."
The wood industry has, for decades, used chromium copper arsenate (CCA), a pesticide, to pressure-treat wood. It contains arsenic, a known human carcinogen. The EPA and the wood industry agreed to phase CCA out starting in 2004. Children can absorb arsenic by touching the wood or by touching the wood and then putting their hands in their mouths.
According to Ken Giles, a spokesman for the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), no human cases of cancer have yet been attributed directly to arsenic-treated wood.
But arsenic-treated wood is still on the market. "Ninety percent of all outdoor wood sold in America as of six months ago was [in this category]," Wiles says. "Virtually every wooden play structure in the country is made with this wood."
The wood also remains in playgrounds and backyards across the country and time does not seem to affect the levels of arsenic. A survey jointly conducted by EWG and the University of North Carolina at Asheville found that the arsenic was just as prevalent in older structures as in new ones.
Critics say the new report contradicts previous statements made by EPA officials, including former administrator Christine Todd Whitman, who said in February 2002, "EPA does not believe there is any reason to remove or replace CCA-treated structures, including decks or playground equipment."
"Our view is, if you don't have a risk assessment, then you basically keep your mouth shut," Wiles says. "You can't make up stuff to protect the industry, and that's what they did."
Giles says that the stance of his bureau and of the EPA has always been that the jury was out until a risk assessment had been completed.
In the meantime, arsenic-treated wood is readily accessible to children all over the nation.
Wiles says the structures should be replaced in areas where they might come into contact with children. If you can't afford to take this step, however, you can replace high-contact areas or cover those areas with plastic tarp.
Giles says don't tear your decks out just yet. The CPSC is conducting studies to determine which sealants or coatings will keep the arsenic from leaking through. Until the results of those studies are available, make the kids wash their hands after they play at the playground and don't give them food to eat while they're playing on these wooden structures.
"We hope we'll be able to say, 'Use the following sealant or coating.' Some experts say oil-based penetrating stains are better than latex-film-forming stains, but we need to do full weatherized testing to see that it works in the long run," Giles says. "Arsenic is a natural element. It is in the environment. We can't make it completely go away, but there are ways of reducing exposure... The EPA and the industry have agreed to make the product go away for the future, and the EPA and CPSC are trying to find a way to reduce the risks from the existing product."
To see the draft risk assessment, visit the EPA. For chemical information on arsenic, visit the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.