When Michele and Kevin Owen of Bentleyville shopped around for a new outdoor playset last summer, they avoided units made with pressure-treated wood. Knowing their three children would spend endless hours playing on the structure, the Owens didn't want to take any chances, particularly with a product containing arsenic. The Owens say their decision to purchase a chemical-free playset made of redwood and red cedar gives them peace of mind.
"If my kids are outside having a snack in their fort, I feel better knowing chemicals aren't going into their bodies," says Michele, who became aware of the possible health hazards of lumber treated with chromated copper arsenate, or CCA, while watching a television news report. "I wasn't horrified about the [CCA-treated] play system we had at the time but since the kids had outgrown it, safety of the wood definitely was a factor when we looked for a new playset."
Last February, the EPA announced plans to phase out CCA-preserved wood for residential use by the end of 2003, citing fears that the toxic chemical may be leaching into the soil or rubbing off on little hands.
Pressurized southern yellow pine which is soaked in a mixture of chemicals, including arsenic, to resist insects, mold and fungi has been used to construct decks, gazebos, fences and other outdoor structures for more than 50 years. In fact, about half of American yards contain structures (an estimated 80 percent of decks and 90 percent of playsets) made with CCA lumber.
So when buying a home, it's safe to assume that an existing pressurized-lumber deck or playset has been treated with arsenic-based chemicals.
While the EPA hasn't determined that exposure to CCA-treated wood causes specific health problems, the agency believes that wood treated with non-arsenical preservatives offers a safer alternative.
"Companies in the treated-lumber industry came to us and wanted to discontinue residential use of CCA-treated lumber and the EPA supported that," says EPA spokesman David Deegan. "The EPA hasn't concluded any significant adverse effects from CCA lumber, yet, at the same time, everybody knows the arsenic component is a proven human carcinogen. The EPA feels that reducing potential exposure to arsenic is a good thing."
A new generation of pressure-treated wood is steadily replacing CCA lumber for residential use, according to Mike Owens, administrator for the Deck Industry Association. He says about 300 lumber treatment plants in the United States are pressurizing wood with alkaline copper quaternary, referred to as ACQ, an arsenic-free preservative.
"I think it was a good compromise and long overdue," Owens says. "When there are alternative chemicals that are much safer than CCA, they should be used."
ACQ-treated lumber, which contains the same fungicides used in disinfectants and swimming-pool additives, has been used in Europe for almost 10 years, says Owens. It has the same appearance and decay- and insect-resistant properties of CCA lumber and costs about 10 percent more.
Some lumber retailers, such as various Carter Lumber locations, have already converted to alternative pressure-treated wood. But many companies still make CCA wood available and say it remains a top-seller.
"People are still buying it because of its low cost," says Russ Morgan, a sales representative for Terry Lumber in Peninsula.
If you build an outdoor structure with CCA lumber, the EPA recommends wearing goggles, a dust mask, gloves and a long-sleeved shirt to reduce exposure to wood particles, particularly when cutting or drilling. Follow the same precautions if you tear down a CCA wood structure and separate the wood from other waste. Your waste-disposal company should deliver it to a landfill dedicated for construction and demolition debris.
"Probably the most important recommendation is to not burn any scraps or sawdust, which can release chemicals in the wood," says the EPA's Deegan.
If you have an outdoor structure made with CCA lumber, the EPA advises that you wash your hands thoroughly after touching the wood. Also, keep food from contact with the lumber and remove splinters that could penetrate skin. While some industry experts say sealing or painting CCA wood might help prevent arsenic from leaching from it, the EPA hasn't determined that applying an oil-based paint or sealant guarantees safety.
"We've evaluated a lot of information and it doesn't all uniformly recommend that sealants help a lot," says Deegan.
If you plan to add a new deck or other outdoor structure, ACQ-treated lumber is more economical than other materials. However, it requires yearly cleaning and sealing, which will drive up the cost over time and might lead you to consider other, lower-maintenance materials such as redwood, cedar or composite lumber.
"If you buy good-quality sealants and stains every year, which could cost $25 a gallon, you're really not saving a lot of money," notes Keith Colton, owner of Deck Crafters in the Flats. "Even a religiously maintained pressure-treated wood deck, five years down the road, won't look as good as one made of composite timber. People in their second or third generation of decks are choosing to go with composite wood."
Composite lumber, which consists of wood fiber and resin, expands and contracts slightly yet doesn't crack or splinter and requires only periodic cleaning, according to Colton. A deck built of composite wood, he says, costs $20 to $30 a square foot vs. the $15 to $17 you'll pay for a pressure-treated wood deck.
Despite composite lumber's higher cost, Rusty Shafer, a contractor sales representative for 84 Lumber Co., says customer interest in the product continues to rise. That increased demand, he adds, should eventually drive down the product's price.
A deck made of composite lumber still requires pressure-treated wood for its undercarriage support system, says Shafer: "Because composite lumber doesn't have the stability of solid wood, pressure-treated lumber is used for the poles, joists and beams of a composite deck."
When Pierre and Veronique Huguley added a deck to their Avon home, they chose composite lumber for its safety and low maintenance. With a 2-year-old child and a hectic schedule, Pierre, a project manager for a local homebuilder, says that the couple wanted a deck that wouldn't cause extra worry or work.
"Our greatest concern was the safety of our son. The extra expense of composite was more than worth it for our peace of mind," Pierre says. He adds, "I didn't have the time or patience to maintain a deck on a yearly basis. Since we built our deck last summer we've had no worries whatsoever."
Like composite wood, plastic lumber holds up well against harsh weather conditions and insect attack, but doesn't contain wood. The Plastic Lumber Co. in Akron uses high-density polyethylene to manufacture Leisure Deck lumber for benches, decks and picnic tables.
"We use plastic from recycled milk jugs so the product is completely benign," says Plastic Lumber Co. sales representative John Robinson. "It's more durable than wood and uses tongue-and-groove construction so you don't see any exposed hardware." Robinson adds that a deck made of plastic lumber, like one of composite wood, requires a pressure-treated wood undercarriage for support.
Woods such as cedar, redwood and cypress, which resist decay and insects, offer homeowners even more choices for their outdoor structures. These woods usually won't warp or splinter and provide natural aesthetic appeal. However, they will lose their original color and turn gray if not treated with a water-repellent sealant. Depending on availability, these high-quality lumbers usually cost more than other outdoor building materials.
Tony Adamic, owner of Playground World in Chesterland, Bedford Heights, Medina and Toledo, says his customers don't mind spending $1,300 to $1,400 for a standard-sized, redwood and cedar play system, which is about twice the cost of a pressure-treated lumber version.
"People are taking a hard look at what's out there," he says. "They're looking for something that's safe for children and will last for years to come."
Playground World's play systems come with a 4-by-6-inch support beam, wood braces, heavy-duty hardware and a stability that only woods such as redwood and cedar can offer, according to Adamic.
Of course, lumber isn't your only option if you're planning to add a patio or retaining wall. Interlocking concrete pavers, at $15 to $20 a square foot for a patio and $20 to $30 for a retaining wall, require little to no maintenance and could last 30 years or better, according to Chris Ursetti, owner of Cleveland Supply and Designing With Nature on Cleveland's West Side.
"Of all our calls, about 25 percent are from people who have a deck they want to take out," Ursetti says. "With stone, you're able to bring the architecture and color tones of your house into the landscape and you're getting something that will last."