Recognizing playground danger

While I was pregnant with our second child, my husband and I decided to purchase a sturdy wooden swing set - one that was strong enough to last through our children's childhood.

My daughter and I spent lazy summer afternoons picnicking in the fort, pretending that we were braving the wild frontier while nibbling on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with the crusts cut off. Little did I know that in our reverie we may have been ingesting arsenic residues that had gotten on our hands from the wood.

The wood was treated with CCA - chromated copper arsenate. The lumber used in the set's construction was soaked with this pesticide. It is used to repel insects and to add to the wood's longevity. Four years ago, I'd never heard of it. Today, it's a terrible burden I - and no doubt many parents - are reminded of daily.

Earlier this month, Hal Stratton, chairman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) said publicly for the first time, that staff scientists believe CCA-treated wood increases the risk of cancer.

Of course arsenic occurs naturally in our environment. It is found in our soil, air, and water. What troubles me, and many others, is that arsenic is a known danger, yet for decades, wooden playground equipment has been made with CCA-treated wood.

Mr. Stratton has taken a bold step. He has contradicted Environmental Protection Agency statements that have said CCA-treated wood posed no health risks, and has called a CPSC meeting in Washington on March 12 to consider banning the use of CCA-treated wood in playground equipment.

Because of consumer demand, many playground manufacturers have voluntarily stopped using CCA-treated wood in their play equipment, but what Stratton has the power to do clearly has more teeth.

Richard Wiles, senior vice president for the Environmental Working Group, which has petitioned for the ban of CCA-treated lumber, says he hopes the CPSC will recall all existing CCA-treated play sets. Though I support this, too, I think it is unlikely to happen, given than 90 percent of all wooden play sets and decks (an estimate by the Healthy Building Network) have been made from the lumber in question. That's a staggering amount, perhaps too much to be realistically recalled.

In the meantime, my husband and I debate what we should do with our swing set. It's expensive - $1,500 at the time we bought it - and is not easily replaced. I can't, in good conscience, donate it or sell it to be used by other children. Until we make a decision, I will drag out my ladder and can of wood sealant, which is what we're told is the best we can do to protect our children. Their hands will be scrubbed furiously with soap and water after climbing on it, and when summer finally arrives, picnics will take place on a blanket spread on the lawn, instead of in our fort.

This summer, when I hope to add a deck to our home, I will be choosing my wood carefully.

Clare Leschin-Hoar is a freelance writer.

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