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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, July 8, 2002

Stores pulling treated lumber

By Mike Leidemann
Advertiser Staff Writer

An arsenic-based preservative used in wood to build decks and other outdoor projects in Hawai'i will be off the shelves of most stores by the end of the year, officials say.

Chromated copper arsenate was once widely used in homes throughout the state, but has fallen out of favor with local builders and contractors in recent years. The chemical continues to be available in treated lumber sold in some home improvement and hardware stores to homeowners and handymen, often without any warning that it can cause cancer if not handled properly.

Lumber companies agreed earlier this year to stop using the termite-prevention treatment — known as CCA and recognized by a tell-tale green tint it lends to lumber — by December.

"It hasn't been a major problem here, but certainly people have to be careful in handling it," said Ken Grace, an entomologist at the University of Hawai'i and an expert in termite prevention. "Most homeowners don't have the level of information they need to do that."

Lumber companies agreed to stop using CCA in lumber after complaints that long-term exposure to arsenic could cause lung, bladder and skin cancer. CCA-treated wood is safe when painted or coated with a sealant, but the arsenic can leach into the ground or skin when the lumber is cut, burned or otherwise damaged, Grace said.

CCA-treated wood, a $4 billion industry nationwide, has been the target of product liability lawsuits around the country. There is substantial evidence that lumber leaches arsenic over time, but debate continues on whether that is cause for concern, especially in playgrounds built with CCA-treated products.

Architect Jim Reinhardt said he and his family had lived in a house with exposed CCA-treated lumber for 30 years, but he did not think it posed a great danger. "It doesn't evaporate or rub off, but I'm going to have my blood checked for arsenic just to be sure," he said.

There is little argument that working with CCA-treated wood can be dangerous. A federal Environmental Protection Agency report earlier this year advised consumers to avoid touching wood with surface residue; to wear gloves, a dust mask and goggles while sawing; always to wash hands and clothes after touching the wood, and never to burn it.

Some of the most severe cases of CCA-related arsenic poisoning nationwide have been reported by families who have burned the lumber in their homes.

"That's the big no-no," Reinhardt said.

"It's a good thing we don't have many fireplaces here," Grace said.

Hawai'i contractors generally quit using CCA-treated lumber in the last decade as steel-framed homes and other termite treatments became popular, Grace said.

"CCA really wasn't that effective in Douglas fir lumber, the most popular building material here," he said. The CCA-treated lumber in older Hawai'i homes poses no threat as long as it remains sealed, Grace said.

But CCA continues to be used in lumber for decks, picnic tables, playground equipment and other products that need to stand up to a warm, wet environment.

"There might be a problem with kids playing in a playground, rolling around in the dirt where the arsenic has been leaching out for years," Reinhardt said. "That's probably a valid concern if someone is exposed over a long period of time."

Grace said local stores have been inconsistent about posting signs about safe use of CCA-treated wood.

"If you go into a hardware or lumber store here, there's always one guy around who can tell you about how to handle it, but sometimes you have to know enough to ask first," he said.

Homeowners looking for an alternative to CCA-treated lumber for their decks, fences and other outdoor products have turned increasingly to a new product, plastic lumber, manufactured from recycled plastic and more durable than treated wood, Grace said.

"I'm a wood guy myself, but I have to admit the plastic stuff looks pretty good these days," he noted. "This is going to be a big boost for recycling."