With the EPA announcing that it intends to close the door on CCA-treated wood in two or three years, alternative decking manufacturers maneuver to fill the void. By Matthew Power

Depending on whom you ask, the recently announced phase out of chromated copper arsenate (CCA)-treated wood is either the worst thing to hit the deck building business in 10 years, or the best. The clear winners: alternative decking material manufacturers, such as Trex, CertainTeed, and LP, along with Florida-based U.S. Plastic Lumber Corp. (USPL) and Kroy Building Products. Also gaining from CCA's setback is wood treated with the more benign alkaline copper quat, or ACQ, which contains no arsenic.

"We believe this phase out provides an enormous opportunity for our company," says USPL CEO Mark Alsentzer. "It's one of the primary reasons we're seeing a substantial increase in dealers and distributors who want to sell our product."

The folks at the Southern Pine Council, Treated Wood Council, and the American Wood Preservers Institute (AWPI) see no practical reason for a phase out, but they have portrayed their cooperation with the EPA as a way to appease public misperceptions, not an apology. They stand by the assertion that CCA creates no health risks. "There's no scientific evidence," asserts Kim Drew, with the Southern Pine Council. "A child would have to eat something like a whole 2x4 to get sick from the stuff. It's bad science."

What happened?

Most concerns about CCA wood have to do with the arsenic used in the chemical mix. Proponents argue that humans get only modest exposure to arsenic by using CCA-treated wood. So far, few illness and injury cases involving CCA-treated wood have been reported. In an extensive search conducted in March 2001, for example, The Gainesville Sun was able to find only 40 CCA-related injury/illness cases, most involving carpenters or construction workers with exposure to CCA-treated sawdust.

Now that CCA-treated wood will be phased out, plastic-wood manufacturers such as LP   expect demand and consumer awareness to increase rapidly. (LP's WeatherBest decking shown here.
Courtesy LP Now that CCA-treated wood will be phased out, plastic-wood manufacturers such as LP expect demand and consumer awareness to increase rapidly. (LP's WeatherBest decking shown here.

The question of whether arsenic leaches into soils from CCA wood, on the other hand, has largely been settled. It does. The Forest Products Journal (FPJ) last year published several CCA-related stories. One looked at CCA levels in treated poles removed from service. Researchers found "some arsenic leaching at all depths," and suggested that "arsenic appears to leach more than other components, and this is independent of the depth of the pole." Another FPJ report published in February 2001 looked at how CCA decks respond to popular deck cleaning chemicals. Result: "Depending on the active ingredients, most deck washes resulted in increased leaching of CCA components, compared to washing with the same volume of water." These leaching concerns have long-term importance, because many landfills now treat CCA-treated wood like a hazardous waste (despite a long-running special exemption from the EPA's hazardous waste standard.) Bottom line: Higher disposal fees and the potential for groundwater contamination loom at the end of the current generation of CCA products' life cycle. That's bad news for consumers and remodelers.

In fact, the wood treatment industry calls this a "transition" from one chemical treatment to another--from wood treated with CCA to wood treated with either ACQ or copper boron azole (CBA).

"We don't believe [composites] will take a lot of market share--at least we hope not," says Parker Burgge, president and CEO of the AWPI. "We expect that in the next 22 months or so, we will have the same capacity with these two new preservatives. They may still cost more than CCA--it's hard to predict--but they won't cost as much as composites."

Composite makers realize that this may be their best chance ever to seize market share in the decking category, while ACQ makers tool up their capacity.

"We knew this was coming, and it didn't really surprise us," says Steve Weinstein, with LP's WeatherBest brand. "For decking, the composite growth has been 15 percent to 20 percent per year. Now, we think it could double in the next year. I think it will raise the level of awareness. ACQ-treated wood currently costs 15 percent to 20 percent more than CCA, and at least initially, there aren't many places that make it. We're still more expensive, but the gap has narrowed significantly. And most of the cost difference is in the labor--which is something that can be improved."