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Do You Know What's in Your Deck and Playground?

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Updated on Apr 28, 2008

There’s nothing healthier or more wholesome than a romp on the playground or dinner under the stars – unless your deck and playset are made of wood treated with chromated copper arsenate (CCA). You know, arsenic.

Until the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned it for residential use on January 1, 2004, CCA was the pesticide of choice for the pressure treated lumber used to build decks and playsets. CCA repels bugs, is inexpensive and makes the wood last longer. The only problem? According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), exposure to it also raises the lifetime risk of lung and bladder cancer. 

If you have a pre-2004 deck in your backyard, the odds are it’s treated with CCA. If your wooden playset isn’t made of redwood or cedar, call the manufacturer to ask. If the wood does contain CCA, don’t panic. Despite scare stories, the CPSC estimates that the lifetime cancer risk to children exposed in early childhood is between 2 in a million and 100 in a million – nothing like the risks you’d see with smoking. Still, it makes sense to take precautions. 

According to the CPSC, the biggest risk is to children under 6 years old, who tend to put their hands in their mouths. If your child touches contaminated wood and then touches her mouth, she can ingest arsenic. Always make sure your children wash their hands after playing on the deck or playset, and wash all toys that may have touched the wood. Follow the same guidelines for the dirt around the deck or playset, which may have become contaminated as arsenic leeches from the wood. 

Cover all wooden picnic tables with a coated tablecloth before serving food. Don’t ever ingest food or drink that has touched the wood, and don’t allow your children to eat on the playset.

The EPA does not routinely advise replacing or removing existing structures, even if they were treated with CCA. Instead, make sure to have all the surfaces sealed with a penetrating stain or sealant at least once a year. Do not sand or pressure-wash the surfaces, and do not use non-penetrating sealants, which can cause flaking. 

If you do decide to ditch the CCA-treated lumber, dispose of it with your trash. Do not burn it or use it to make mulch. 

By following these common-sense precautions, you and your children can enjoy your backyard and playground and leave the pesticide to the pests.

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