EPA Rejects Carcinogenic Wood Preservative for Home Use

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Federal officials yesterday rejected an industry bid to use a known carcinogen as a preservative in lumber for backyard decks, picnic tables, playgrounds and other household uses.

Industry groups had petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency three years ago to use acid copper chromate (ACC), which contains the carcinogen hexavalent chromium, featured in the film "Erin Brockovich," to treat wood sold in hardware and home improvement stores.

EPA Assistant Administrator James B. Gulliford said the agency concluded that the dangers associated with the preservative, which include an increased cancer risk for plant workers and skin irritation among consumers, "outweigh the product's minimal benefits."

Among workers handling the preservative, the cancer rate can vary between 1 in 1,000 to 1 in 100,000, according to the EPA. The federally accepted standard is one in a million. Consumers using the product can experience skin irritation that can worsen over time.

"The science was clear; the decision was clear," Gulliford said. "EPA's decision protects America's families, workers and the environment."

Jim Jones, who directs the EPA Office of Pesticide Programs, said the skin irritation users might experience after coming into contact with wood treated with ACC would be painful even if it did not pose a health risk. "You would not expect to get that kind of allergic reaction" to a common product, Jones said.

Environmentalists, who last week were issuing news releases suggesting that the Bush administration "appears ready to ignore the science and rush this carcinogen to market before the cancer risks to children are fully understood," praised the EPA yesterday.

"This is a great decision," said Richard Wiles, executive director of the advocacy organization Environmental Working Group. "It stops this known carcinogen from showing up in everyone's back yard."

Four years ago, the EPA banned an arsenic-and-chromium-based wood preservative called chromated copper arsenate (CCA), and wood suppliers now use several different applications to keep wood from deteriorating and to prevent insect infestation. Gulliford estimated that ACC is only marginally cheaper than other residential wood preservatives, costing about 3 percent less.

The debate over whether to approve ACC touched off a spirited lobbying battle inside the Beltway. Forest Products Research Lab, which produces the chromium-based preservative for industrial use and was hoping to supply the residential market, has paid the lobbying firm Alston & Bird, which employs former GOP presidential candidate Robert J. Dole, nearly half a million dollars over the past three years to push for EPA approval. The company's competitors, including Osmose Corp. and Chemical Specialties Inc., also hired Washington lobbyists to try to block the petition.

Dennis Morgan, president of Forest Products Research Lab, said his company had trouble learning why the EPA opposed its product and retained Dole to tell EPA officials, "Gee fellas, tell this guy what your concerns are." He noted that in May the EPA approved ACC for treating wood used to make railroad ties and telephone ties, and said he does not understand the distinction between industrial and residential use.

"I don't understand what changed," Morgan said. "We believe we provided the data to show this was a safe product."

But EPA officials, as well as outside experts, said there was no need to expose plant workers and consumers to the preservative when other products work just as well. Jason Holstine, president of the Amicus Green Building Center in Kensington, said the administration's decision "makes perfect sense," adding: "There are extremely safe and environmentally friendly alternatives," such as boric-acid-based preservatives.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company