Smarter Living: Chemical Index

U.S. industries release thousands of pounds of arsenic, a known carcinogen, into the environment each year, most of it from the manufacture and application of arsenic as a wood preservative.

Ingesting arsenic-contaminated water, food, or soil can increase the risk of skin, bladder, kidney and lung cancer. Breathing high levels of arsenic can cause nausea, vomiting, decreased blood cell production, abnormal heart rhythm, damage to blood vessels, severe skin irritation and lung cancer.

Arsenic can cross the placenta and there is some evidence linking pre-birth exposures with lower IQ scores.

Exposure

Arsenic is a naturally-occurring mineral as well as a carcinogenic by-product of copper smelting, mining and coal-burning. Arsenic was used extensively as a wood preservative, and can contaminate many wooden structures such as porches, home decks and playground equipment.In 2003, wood preservatives with arsenic were banned from use around homes and in playgrounds throughout the US, but older structures are still a potential problem.

The most conservative estimates show that at least 34 million people in the United States are drinking water contaminated with unsafe levels of arsenic. Only 25 states report arsenic information to the EPA, so the actual number is likely much higher. Arsenic enters drinking water supplies either from natural deposits in the earth or from industrial pollution. U.S. industries release thousands of pounds of arsenic into the environment each year, most of it from the manufacture and application of arsenic as a wood preservative. Arsenic can also wash off of outdoor furniture, decks and playground equipment and contaminate nearby soils. Additionally, contact with these structures can leave a residue on people’s hands which can be absorbed through the skin or swallowed when they put their hand in their mouth or touch food.  This is particularly worrisome for kids because they play on, and around, arsenic treated wood structures and are more likely to put their hands in their mouths.

Stay Safe

Find out if your drinking water is contaminated with arsenic. Use this guide to determine whether you need a home water filter.

If arsenic is a problem, use this guide to select the filter best suited to remove arsenic from your tap water. Don’t rely on bottled water – there are no assurances it is any safer than your tap water.

Watch out for older (pre-2004) preservative-treated wood structures and make sure to wash up after any contact with the structures or play in the surrounding areas. Avoid eating directly off treated picnic tables and where possible, find other places to play.

Where possible, replace old arsenic-treated wood--particularly high traffic areas like railings and steps. Alternatively, seal wooden decks, tables, and playsets that contain arsenic with a solid or semi-transparent oil-based sealant on a regular basis and inspect periodically to make sure the seal is intact.  Do not use rollers or brushes for other purposes and make sure to wear protective gear (goggles, gloves and dust mask) when sawing, cleaning or handling arsenic- treated wood. Avoid sanding, power washing, or using harsh chemicals to clean arsenic-treated wood.

Never burn arsenic-treated wood, including recycled wood from decks or play structures built before 2004.

Make sure arsenic-treated wood is never used where it could come into contact with food such as in vegetable gardens, bee hives, compost structures, food storage containers, cutting boards, and counter tops.

Talk to your school or city parks department about efforts to replace or seal arsenic-treated wood structures. Organize a volunteer day at your local park or playground to seal all arsenic-treated wood on a regular basis until it can be replaced.

Take Action

Stronger standards now exist for arsenic in drinking water, and these tougher standards will trigger cleanup efforts of contaminated systems. But we need better regulation of the industrial processes that produce arsenic and of the regulations that allow its use in commercial products. This will require reforming the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). Urge your legislators to protect our health from toxic chemicals in our everyday products.

Learn More

Arsenic in Drinking Water

NRDC Protecting People From Unsafe Chemicals

Toxicological Profile for Arsenic, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, August 2007

Arsenic and Old Laws, NRDC, February 2000.

last revised 12/27/2011

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