We have seen the extensive use of pressure treated wood and lacquer on wood exposed to the elements around our homes, playgrounds, schools, child care centers and parking lots. As we have experienced countless time, use of chemicals has unanticipated side effects including negatively impacting our environment and health.
Wood that has been pressure treated, has had added to it a protective preservative whose purpose is to destroy fungus and insects, and to keep moisture from destroying the wood. The most widely used preservative in previous years consisted of pesticides whose active ingredient was commonly copper, chromium, and/or arsenic, as well as other metals. Commonly referred to as CCA wood (chromated copper arsenate), this pesticide treated wood has often been used up until recently, for most playground equipment, along with other non-commercial uses, such as walkways, decks, gazebos, and other outdoor furniture.
Lacquer a clear coating often referred to as a varnish and it used to give wood a glossy polished look, was also used to protect wood from the elements.
Up until recently, there has been little concern for the health and safety dangers to children, adults, and the environment from the use of this wood in playground areas.
What is the problem exactly? It is the leaching out of chemicals into the environment. One such study was conducted by the Connecticut Department of Public Health, where they found that pressure treated wood can leach small amounts of arsenic into the environment, a little at a time. is the leaching was caused by rainwater, which can transport these pesticides into the soil and also leave pesticide residue on the wood’s surface. In the report from the Connecticut DPH, a caution was given to parents to be careful about allowing their children to play in areas where this type of pressure treated wood had been used.
The Gloucester City News reported in a more recent 2011 article on the dangers of pressure treated wood on playground equipment, that more recent studies have shown that the chemical CCA ( chromated copper arsenate) does leach from treated wood and that if there is exposure to large amounts of CCA, it can be poisonous. There is a dangerous trickle-down effect that can occur when CCA begins to leach out of pressure treated wood. CCA finds its way into the soil beneath playground equipment and other outdoor equipment, and can stick to wood surfaces, it then becomes much easier for arsenic to end up on the hands and clothing of the children playing in these areas.
If there is enough consistent exposure to CCA, some of the health hazards include skin rashes, stomach irritations, and damage to blood vessels. Further research is being conducted to uncover even more serious effects to exposure of high levels of CCA.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), CCA has been used to pressure treat wood since the 1940’s, and since the 70’s CCA has been the main chemical preservative used to treat outdoor wood surfaces.
There are now several arsenic-free wood treatment alternatives, chemical and non-chemical, such as Copper Azole, which is a water-based wood preservative, or Borates, which are minerals that exist naturally in small amounts in rocks, water, and the soil. Borates is low toxic and also has beneficial health effects for plants and people. The EPA also states that Redwood is a natural alternative to the use of CCA treated wood, because it is naturally resistant to decay and insects. Exotic hardwoods are also another natural alternative, such as mahogany. The downfall right now to these natural alternatives is that they are far more expensive than the chemical treatments.
Over the last several years, PEA has assisted a multitude of New Jersey Child Care Centers in obtaining new licenses or renewals to operate. All facilities require that they provide outdoor playgrounds either on-site or nearby unless they are using a public area. In conducting Preliminary assessments, we found several playgrounds to have used pressure-treated wood for fencing, retainer walls, curbing, playground equipment or other structures. We subsequently conducted site investigations. Though we determined leaching was not an issue for most based on soil sampling, one did require major remediation because of arsenic leaching within one foot of the wood.
Equipment replacement was required several years ago for at least private facilities. However, we are concerned that post-removal sampling was not conducted in the areas where it was removed and in the future its presence will be forgotten. In addition, there may still be or was other uses of this wood on-site besides the equipment. This was almost the case we recently encountered with a proposed child care center at a Jewish Temple. The director mentioned that a Sukkah had for a long time stood within the area of the proposed playground when we asked about the concrete base we noted. Upon being provided with old photographs, we noted the structure was constructed of pressure-treated wood which was covered with varnish or stain. We are currently awaiting analysis of soil samples.