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Arsenic in wood
Overview and health risks

Poison In Your Own Backyard…Hidden in the Wood

In the 1980s, the lumber industry caught a huge break from the federal government. While other industries were told they could no longer use arsenic in their products, lumber makers were granted an exemption. And they continued to use chromated copper arsenate (CCA), which is roughly 25 percent arsenic, in their wood to prevent rot and to repel pests that might damage the wood.

Until recently, approximately 90 percent of outdoor wooden structures were made using CCA-treated wood. That means the deck you had built, the play equipment in your yard, the picnic table and any number of other wooden structures around your home are likely made of wood that contains high levels of arsenic.

Why is this a problem?

Arsenic leaches out of the wood and ends up on your hands and the hands of your kids. It’s the kids that are especially at risk, though. They put their hands in their mouths a lot, they can transfer the arsenic to the food they eat, and they are more vulnerable overall to the poison. Arsenic has been linked to various cancers, organ diseases and neurological problems.

Tests performed in 2001 by Environmental Working Group  and Healthy Building Network found that lumber sold in major stores like The Home Depot and Lowe's contained arsenic far in excess of the guidelines set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). That so-called “safe” EPA level is 10 micrograms of arsenic per liter of drinking water. On average, surface contamination of an area of CCA-treated lumber the size of a child's hand exceeded that level by an 120 times.

Early 2002 marked a turning point when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and lumber industry representatives decided on a phase-out of CCA-treated wood by 2004. While this is a great victory for Generation Green and great news for parents and other concerned citizens, it is not the end of the story.

For one thing, a phase-out doesn’t do anything to remove the threat of wood still out there. Remember, 90% of outdoor wooden structures used CCA-treated wood. That’s a huge amount of wood that can still expose our families to arsenic ingestion. You can learn more about how to protect your family and how to help in other ways by using the links on the left-hand side of this page.