By Gerry Donohue In the Hollywood classic ?Arsenic and Old Lace,? Mortimer Brewster?s spinster aunts buried arsenic in their basement in the form of poisoned elderly widowers. In homes across the country, home builders, remodelers, deck builders, and fence installers bury arsenic in their customers? backyards in the form of pressure-treated wood. In the movie, the aunts go off to the insane asylum to take care of their cousin Teddy, who thinks he?s Theodore Roosevelt. In real life, contractors may not get off so easy. After nearly 70 years of treating wood with chromated copper arsenate (CCA) to preserve it against moisture and insects, the pressure-treated wood industry is in the glare of the spotlight. Regulators, lawyers, the media, and slowly but surely consumers are questioning the reasoning behind putting arsenic in backyards and playgrounds. "There are serious health effects and environmental effects from CCA and there should not be a single piece of playground equipment treated with it," contends David McCrea, a lawyer in Bloomington, Ind., who has brought several cases against wood preservers. ?The industry should stop producing it yesterday.? The performance of CCA-treated wood, however, is well proven. According to preservers, it can last 50 years or longer. Many manufacturers guarantee their treated-wood products protect against dry rot, fungi, molds, termites, and other pests for decades and some even offer limited lifetime warranties. And compared with alternative treated lumber and exotic and composite woods, CCA-treated products are less expensive. Nonetheless, contractors may soon find themselves in an uncomfortable position. Wood preservers already are facing lawsuits over arsenic. As professional installers of CCA-treated wood, contractors also may face liability claims from homeowners who come to see their decks, foundations, or swing sets as poisonous. ?I only became aware of this controversy in the past several weeks,? says Lawson Calhoun, a custom home builder in Marietta, Ga., who uses CCA-treated wood for decks. ?I?m looking into it right now, trying to get some facts. There could be some real concerns.? The whole situation is in flux. The industry is putting up a nearly united front supporting the CCA process, while opponents are pushing for a ban of the product. Contractors need to watch as these developments unfold, but of more immediate concern is the consumer reaction. Most homeowners have no idea that there is arsenic in pressure-treated lumber. If the word spreads and some level of public anxiety sets in, contractors will have a lot of explaining to do. Unreasonable Risk? The CCA-treated lumber controversy is a lawyer?s dream. It?s got a poison, innocent children, big companies, limited scientific research, and isolated instances of substantial injury. Mix those together and you have the potential for huge settlements. ?While the arsenic has always been there in the wood, the industry never told [consumers],? says attorney McCrea. ?Who knows how many adverse effects have been suffered? There are a multitude of exposure possibilities because 99 percent of consumers don?t know they should take precautions.? Still, the EPA reviewed the use of CCA-treated wood during the 1980s and, at that time, concluded that the wood did not pose unreasonable risks. The agency, however, was concerned about the health effects on people who work with CCA. Based on those concerns, it issued new requirements for protecting people who worked with it on a daily basis. The industry agreed in the mid-1980s to implement a consumer safety information program after the EPA came very close to banning the product. The industry committed to ensuring that signs are ?prominently displayed? at the point of sale to let consumers know that safety information is available from the retailer. By most accounts the industry has failed to police itself. In an article published in the Los Angeles Times in April, reporters visited five Home Depot and Lowe?s stores in California, Texas, and Virginia and only one store had a sign about the consumer information sheets and only two actually had the sheets. For another article in the St. Petersburg Times in March, the reporter found ?no prominently displayed placards? at area retailers. ?We get the [consumer safety materials] from the treaters,? says Home Depot spokesperson Don Harrison. ?We make it available in our stores, but it?s not our role to treat these warnings like bag stuffers.? That lack of public information has had consequences. McCrea recently won a jury trial for a man who in 1996 fell and got about 15 splinters of CCA-treated wood in his shin. Doctors removed the splinters but took no additional steps because they didn?t know about the arsenic in the wood. Over the next three and a half years, the wounds failed to heal properly and the man suffered from a variety of ailments. Only when he learned by chance about the arsenic were his doctors able to treat him properly. McCrea has won or settled on other suits that involved contractors or homeowners who were injured after they inhaled CCA sawdust or came in prolonged contact with CCA-treated products. And he is now involved with a group of lawyers who are trying to get class-action status for a Florida lawsuit against the wood treatment industry, Home Depot, and Lowe?s. They claim that the arsenic is poisoning people and that the industry has shown a ?negligent, reckless, and/or intentional disregard for the harmful effects of the chemicals used in the treatment process.? In response, Mel Pine, manager of communications and state government relations for the Fairfax, Va.-based American Wood Preservers Institute (AWPI), says ?You won?t find a single instance of a person who has been harmed by regular use of treated wood.? He points out that studies of carpenters in Hawaii, where most framing is done with pressure-treated wood because of termite infestations, and of workers in CCA-treatment plants have shown no harmful effect. Nevertheless, the industry has reached an agreement with the EPA to place consumer safety information tags on every piece of CCA-treated lumber. These tags will inform consumers about the presence of arsenic in the wood and include warnings about handling and burning it. In addition, two environmental groups recently entered the fray. The Environmental Working Group and the Healthy Building Network released a report in May that stated that children can ingest high levels of arsenic merely by touching CCA-treated wood and then putting their hands in their mouth. ?We found that wood structures are a major source of arsenic for a lot of children,? says Jane Houlihan, research director for the Environmental Working Group. ?Even an average child gets many times the arsenic dose they would naturally get from drinking water and food.? Houlihan says the environmental groups have embarked on a public education campaign to teach parents and homeowners about the hazards of CCA-treated lumber. The Preservative Process To create pressure-treated wood, manufacturers place the wood in a vacuum to remove all the water and air. Then they inject the wood under pressure with the preservative. In the case of CCA-treated wood, about 27 grams of arsenic are pumped into each 12-foot 2x6 board. According to Richard Martin at Origen Biomedical, an Austin, Texas-based medical products manufacturer, that?s enough to kill 250 adults. ?This product is designed to kill bugs,? says McCrea. ?And we?re essentially just big bugs with a similar microbiology.? The amount of poison in the wood wouldn?t really matter if it stayed there, but that?s where the controversy is. How much arsenic leaches into the surrounding soil over time? According to Elena Solo-Gabriele, who has led a multi-year study of CCA-treated wood at the University of Miami, between 10 percent and 20 percent of the CCA migrates out of the wood after 20 years. ?From an environmental point of view, 20 percent is a significant amount,? she says. ?It can impact the environment.? While the wood preservers? industry admits to some leaching, officials say the impact is minimal. ?The little bit of the chemical that migrates from the wood doesn?t go very far,? says the AWPI?s Pine. ?It binds with other minerals in the soil within a foot or a foot and a half.? Complicating the controversy is that it?s centered in Florida, where the sandy soil doesn?t contain the minerals that bind up leaching arsenic. As a result, Florida has a default clean-up standard for arsenic of 0.8 parts per million, which scientists say is substantially below the level of arsenic that is naturally found in soils in other states. In contrast, California?s clean-up standard is 22 parts per million. So when investigations around several dozen playgrounds and decks in Florida found concentrations of arsenic many times higher than the state?s clean-up standard, the media went on a feeding frenzy and state regulators flew to Washington, D.C., to demand action by the EPA. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection is concerned that arsenic leaching out of discarded CCA-treated wood in landfills could pose a significant hazard to the state?s groundwater. But not all of Florida?s regulators are so alarmed. ?We looked at one particular playground and assumed that average arsenic in soil is about 10 parts per million,? says Joe Sekerke, a toxicologist with the state Department of Health. ?Based on that standard, I don?t think there is any danger.? Sekerke?s voice has largely been lost in the furor. Nobody really wants to hear it. And nobody wants to wait for the EPA?s analysis of CCA-treated lumber, which is scheduled to be complete in 2003. Scientific research takes a long time and the American public?s attention span lasts about as long as it takes to change channels on the TV remote. This controversy won?t be played out in the laboratory, but in the courts and in public opinion. CCA Alternatives The market for pressure-treated wood is huge. According to the AWPI, the industry treated more than 7 billion board feet of lumber in 2000. About 5 billion board feet went into residential applications. The most common uses were decks, fences, playgrounds, and picnic equipment. Of those 7 billion board feet, 98.5 percent was treated with CCA. The remainder was treated with a variety of other preservatives that have come onto the market as less- or non-toxic alternatives to CCA. Ammoniacal copper quaternary (ACQ), sometimes known as alkaline copper quaternary, makes up the lion?s share of the alternative market with about 100 million board feet last year. Tests show that ACQ-treated wood can last as long or nearly as long as CCA-treated products, according to the National Association of Home Builders Research Center and other sources, although the products tend to be 5 percent to 10 percent more expensive than CCA-treated wood. Contractors or consumers going to Home Depot, Lowe?s, or most other building supply stores, however, won?t find these alternative products on the shelves. ?If the customer wants it and is willing to be patient, we?ll order ACQ-treated lumber for him,? says Home Depot?s Harrison. Unlike consumers, most contractors have long known about the potential hazards of working with CCA-treated wood. When building foundations or decks, they know they should only work with it outdoors, use gloves when handling it, and wear a mask when cutting it. According to the EPA, people should take those same precautions when cutting any type of wood. Sawdust, according to the agency, is a carcinogen. ?We require that our trades clean up the site and themselves after working with CCA-treated wood,? says Patty McDaniel, a custom builder/remodeler in Rehoboth Beach, Del. Few contractors, however, have considered whether the product poses any danger for their homeowners. But one who has is Tom Molidor in Chicago. Owner of Molidor Custom Builders, Molidor builds ?healthy? homes using non-toxic alternatives to many products. ?I will use CCA-treated wood in the base of a deck, but I only use cedar or redwood for the boards,? says Molidor. ?I don?t want my customers coming in contact with the treated wood.? PlayNation Play Systems, the largest manufacturer of wooden playground equipment on the East Coast, stopped using CCA-treated lumber in its products. ?We started marketing ACQ-treated lumber in 1998 as an alternative to CCA, and it quickly accounted for 80 percent of our business,? says Dave Seitz, vice president of PlayNation, which is based in Kennesaw, Ga. ?Now that we have proven that ACQ is a viable alternative, we decided to take a leadership position and use exclusively ACQ-treated wood.? According to Dave Fowlie, vice president of business development at Chemical Specialties in Charlotte, N.C., ACQ-treated lumber now is available through more than 300 retail distributors nationwide. ?There is growing demand for ACQ products and how much pressure the industry will be under will determine the pace of that growth,? says Fowlie. ?We believe that we are well positioned to meet that demand.? For now, the wood treaters are holding the line on CCA, saying that it?s a safe product that will be exonerated. At the same time, however, they?re watching consumer attitudes. ?We think CCA is a great product,? says the AWPI?s Pine, ?but our industry will treat with whatever product the market wants us to.? BUILDING PRODUCTS Magazine, September/October 2001 Freelance writer Gerry Donohue won an award from the Construction Writers Association for this article. Since the story was published, CCA wood was banned and will be off the market.