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Poisoned Wood Playsets and Decks

by Dr. Randy


Wood that is used to build playground structures, decks, and picnic tables is treated with arsenic to discourage termites (pressure treated lumber). The arsenic rubs off on children’s hands and exposes them to levels much higher than allowed by the FDA in water or foods. Arsenic causes acute, toxic symptoms (vomiting, diarrhea, and bleeding ulcers), and cancer.

According to the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit watchdog organization, over 90 percent of outdoor wooden structures in the United States are made with arsenic-treated lumber. Their recent report states that, “In less than ten days, an average five-year-old playing on an arsenic-treated playset would exceed the lifetime cancer risk considered acceptable under federal pesticide law.” Their tests have confirmed that arsenic treated wood continues to release toxic levels of arsenic for the entire useful lifetime of the wooden structure. The Center for Environmental Health has filed legal notice to sue the manufacturers of wooden playground equipment.

The EPA announced a phase out of arsenic-treated wood, removing the wood from home improvement stores by January 2004. In the meantime, children need to be protected from arsenic exposure acquired from decks and playsets already constructed. Several measures can be instituted at home and at schools.

1. Test wood for arsenic. Decks, tables, and play equipment can be tested using a wipe kit available for $15 at

2. Seal the wood every six months with a polyurethane or oil based penetrating sealer. According to the report, “Surface arsenic levels on wood sealed more than six months ago are indistinguishable from levels on wood that has never been sealed.”

3. Take precautions with all outdoor wooden structures. Wash hands after every exposure, especially before eating. Cover wooden picnic tables with a tablecloth. Do not store toys or tools ;under decks.

4. Never use deck washing solutions and never pressure wash wood. These cleaning methods increase exposure to arsenic. Use soap and water and disposable cleaning supplies.

5. Never sand arsenic-treated wood. Never burn it. And never allow children to play on rough wood surfaces. Arsenic splinters present special hazards.

6. Use alternatives to arsenic-treated wood. The companies that make arsenic treatments also make copper based pressure treatments for wood. Safe pressure treated wood is available through and ). Composite decking materials made from polythylene plastic and wood fibers are also available as a durable and nontoxic alternative to wood. Avoid PVC vinyl decking that often contains phthalate plastic softerners.

Sources for composite decking:

ChoiceDek by Advanced Environmental Recycling (

Nexwood (

Polywood (

Trex (

CareFree by US Plastic Lumber plastic and fiberglass (

For the complete EWG report (August 29, 2002) on arsenic-treated wood go to their website at: