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Question: We have a wood deck where we spend a lot of time outdoors. I heard that pressure-treated wood can be poisonous. How can I tell if mine is, and what can I do about it?

Christine Climer responds: Pressure-treated wood does sometimes contain a preservative called chromated copper arsenate (CCA) -- this means arsenic. Arsenic is a poison and has also been linked with the development of certain types of cancer. When your child touches CCA-treated wood with his hands, arsenic residue sticks to his skin. Then if he puts fingers in his mouth or touches food, he ingests the arsenic.

Walking through your local home improvement store’s lumber department, you may have noticed some wood carries an interesting green tint. That green color is CCA. Many stores no longer carry CCA-treated woods, and the lumber industry has agreed voluntarily to phase out CCA treatment of wood intended for residential use. Other non-arsenic chemicals are available instead. So if you are building a new structure, arsenic exposure is likely to be less of an issue.

As for your existing structure, you may not be able to tell if the wood was treated with CCA, since the green color fades over time. Redwood and cedar are naturally resistant, so they aren’t chemically treated. Neither are composite materials. If your deck is not made of any of those, it is likely to contain CCA.

The EPA does not recommend that you remove any existing structures, but it does recommend that consumers take steps to minimize arsenic exposure. These precautions include:

• Apply an oil-based wood sealer annually. Other paints and surface sealers tend to chip off over time.

• Never allow your child to eat or drink while having contact with a treated structure such as playground equipment or picnic tables. If you aren’t sure, assume the structure is treated.

• Wash hands and other exposed body parts immediately after playing or coming into contact with a treated structure and before eating, drinking or using the bathroom.

• Launder clothing after exposure.

• Never consume food that has been grown in soil contaminated by CCA runoff (such as garden beds with wooden borders).

If you do choose to remove your existing structure, additional safety precautions are necessary:

• Wear protective gear (gloves, dust mask, eye protection).

• Never burn CCA-treated wood.

• Wash exposed areas after working with the wood and before eating, drinking, using the bathroom and using tobacco products.

Learn more about CCA treated wood

Visit the Wood Preservative Science Council
Read the EPA’s Questions & Answers

© Christine Climer.

Christine Climer is a registered nurse with experience in pulmonary disease, pediatrics, home health and hospice services. Also trained in early childhood education, she is currently executive director and child care nurse for an early childhood health promotion organization. She lives with her husband and three children (including a set of twins) in Texas and enjoys researching health issues and gardening.

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