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Are arsenic-treated playgrounds safe?
Q: I heard that arsenic has been found in wooden playground structures. Could you please give me more information about this?
Peter Springfield
A: Peter, you are right that warnings have been given about arsenic in wood playground structures. A form of arsenic, called copper chromium arsenate, is a pesticide that has been used as a wood preservative in pressure-treated wood used for outdoor structures such as decks, porches, fences, and playground equipment. The arsenic protects the wood from termites, fungus, and water damage.

Children can come into contact with the arsenic in the wood in a couple of ways: by playing on the wood structures, and by playing around the wood structures in soil or sand contaminated with arsenic that has been leached out from the wood by the rain. The arsenic could become dangerous to children if they put their hands in their mouths or eat food without first washing their hands.

Arsenic poisoning from treated wood is thought to be very rare. When arsenic poisoning occurs, it can cause vomiting, diarrhea, skin and nail changes, damage to the nervous system, and cancer. To reduce the risk of arsenic poisoning, the manufacturers of pressure-treated wood agreed to remove arsenic by 2004. But parents should beware of existing playground structures, decks, porches, and fences that still have arsenic. Take the following precautions to help protect your children:
  • Make sure your children wash their hands after playing on pressure-treated wood structures and before eating food.
  • Do not plant your vegetable or herb garden next to pressure-treated wood structures.
  • Coat pressure-treated wood structures with clear sealant at least every other year
  • Do not sand or burn pressure-treated wood—this can release arsenic vapors.
  • Dispose of old wooden structures at a designated site for toxic waste disposal.
  • Find out about the arsenic content in your local drinking water. Well water is more likely to have higher arsenic levels. Consider using a home water filter that protects against arsenic.

For more information, visit www.epa.gov/pesticides/ or water.epa.gov/drink/.
Karen Sokal-Gutierrez M.D., M.P.H. Pediatrician