Automakers Divided Over Lead Wheel Weights

  • When tires are balanced, lead weights are attached to the wheel rim. The weights make sure the tires wear evenly, and ensure a smooth ride. But the Ecology Center says the weights fall off, and the lead degrades easily, posing a risk to human health. (Photo by Mark Brush)

For years, the government and environmentalists have been working to reduce lead exposure in the environment. Lead can cause developmental damage to children and cause other health problems. The government banned lead in gasoline. It banned lead shot in shotgun shells. There are efforts to get rid of lead sinkers in fishing tackle. And now, environmentalists are trying to ban lead weights used to balance wheels. And some companies and fleet operators seem willing to comply. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Julie Halpert has the story about the move to a less hazardous alternative:

Transcript

For years, the government and environmentalists have been working to reduce lead exposure in the
environment. Lead can cause developmental damage to children and cause other health problems. The
government banned lead in gasoline. It banned lead shot in shotgun shells. There are efforts to get rid of lead
sinkers in fishing tackle. And now, environmentalists are trying to ban lead weights used to balance wheels.
And some companies and fleet operators seem willing to comply. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Julie
Halpert has the story about the move to a less hazardous alternative:


When you buy a new car or get your tires replaced, manufacturers use lead weights, which clip onto the wheel
rim to make sure it’s evenly balanced. They use lead, because it’s heavy, dense. So a small amount by
volume is used.


Still, a few ounces of lead can be used on each wheel. And nearly every car and truck on the road has lead
weights. They’re the second largest use of lead in cars, next to lead acid batteries.


As long as the weights stay on the tires, they’re not a huge problem. But environmentalists are worried that
they come off too often. Many fall off when a car hits a pothole or collides with a curb. Then they’re run
over, ground down and get into the environment.


Each year, roughly 30-million pounds of lead are used to make wheel weights. A recent study estimates that
more than 300 tons of lead fall off vehicles each year in the Midwest alone. Jeff Gearhart is with the Ecology
Center which conducted that study.


“Many people don’t realize there’s a lot of lead in vehicles for this particular use and this is actually a fairly
small percentage of that lead actually falls off. But when you look at it as quantity, it’s pretty significant.”


The weights don’t just pose a problem on the road. Gearhart says there’s also danger when they’re not
properly recycled when new tires are put on and the weights are replaced. Another problem is when a car is
scrapped and then later when the parts are melted down, the lead can be released into the environment.

“Lead wheel weights are not managed very well as vehicles are scrapped and the difficulty in correcting the
management of these at the end of a life in a salvage yard or in a vehicle crusher or a shredder is very
challenging.”


He says the solution is to make sure lead is not used in the first place. Concerned about lead’s potential
health effects, Europe has already decided to ban lead wheel weights starting next year. And Gearhart is
pushing manufacturers who design for the U.S. market to do the same. He says substitute materials, such as
zinc, iron and tin, are readily available and work just as well as lead.


And with funding from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Ecology Center is making lead-free weights
available to those who service vehicle fleets.


(sound of weights being hammered onto wheel rims)


At the city of Ann Arbor, Michigan’s garage, a technician is banging zinc weights onto wheels. Tom
Gibbons helps manage this fleet of 400 city vehicles. Ann Arbor is the first city to switch to lead-free
weights.


“We realize lead is a problem in the environment and in the city, we’re really concerned about the
environment. We’re committed to doing as much as we can to protect it, so if we can take lead out of the
system, why not do it.”


Gibbons says the substitutes work just as well as lead weights. He says once the Ecology Center’s free
supply of weights runs out, the city will began buying non-lead weights, even though they’ll cost slightly
more.


But not everyone agrees with the idea of using other materials for wheel weights. Daimler/Chrysler doesn’t
plan to switch to lead-free weights for its U.S. models. The company is concerned the substitutes are costlier
and more difficult to install on wheels.


Other automakers are looking at eliminating the use of lead weights. Terry Cullum is with General Motors.
He agrees they’re currently an issue, but says the Ecology Center’s estimate of the number of weights that fall
off cars seems high to him. And, he says there’s no imminent danger to the public.

“I think if you look at this from a risk-based situation, we don’t view lead being used in wheel weights
applications as a risk, well, as a large risk, let’s put it that way.”


Even so, General Motors is considering moving to lead free weights. Cullum says that everywhere the
automaker uses lead is a concern. And since the company will have to stop using lead weights on the cars and
trucks it sell in Europe, he says it might be easier just to take them out of all GM vehicles. Still, Cullum says
the substitutes present a big engineering challenge: because they’re not as dense. It takes bigger pieces of
metal to make the same weight. So, they take up more space on the wheel than lead weights.


“It becomes an issue, in terms of where do you put it on the wheel, how do you do it in such a way that it
doesn’t actually interfere with the actual operation of the wheel or the brake systems. That is an issue that is
going through research and engineering right now.”


But Cullum’s optimistic that the issue can be addressed. And other auto makers, such as Honda, are forging
ahead with lead-free weights on at least one of their model.


Still there’s resistance from U.S. tire retailers. The Tire Industry Association says the weights don’t fall off
wheels. And the tire retailers say the lead weights are properly recycled. The group has no plans to stop
using lead weights if they’re not legally required to.


Jeff Gearhart with the Ecology Center says that denial of the problem is a big mistake. He says if
manufacturers and tire retailers cooperated, they could get a substantial amount of lead out of the
environment within a few years.


“There is the potential to make a really significant impact here. We’re talking hundreds of tons of lead
released into the U.S. to the environment that can be eliminated. So we think this is a high priority project,
not just for us, but we think it will be for states and for EPA to look at how to facilitate this transition to
cleaner wheel balancing.”

The Environmental Protection Agency is starting to look at the issue. It plans to conduct a study within the
next year to get a better understanding of the problem and see how lead weights are handled. Then, they’ll
issue guidelines for consumers and tire recyclers late next year. That means the public will be more aware of
the use of lead wheel weights and the potential for toxic exposure. Usually, that means public pressure for
change, whether some automakers and tire retailers like it or not.


For The Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Julie Halpert.

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Prime Minister Renews Support for Kyoto

Environmentalists are praising Canada’s new prime minister for his promise to meet the goals laid out by the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Karen Kelly reports:

Transcript

Environmentalists are praising Canada’s new prime minister for his promise to meet the goals laid
out by the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Karen Kelly
reports:


In his first week in office, Canadian prime minister Paul Martin promised that Canada would meet
its Kyoto target. The country has pledged to reduce greenhouse gases by 30-percent in the next 8
years. Martin’s plan includes new spending on environmental innovations that will conserve energy.


John Bennett of the Climate Change Action Network says it’s a commitment that will reap large
rewards.


“If we now were to turn our investment dollars into conservation and efficiency, we could not only
make a profit, but we could reach the Kyoto targets at the same time.”


The Kyoto treaty will not become legally binding unless Russia signs on as well. Russian officials
have yet to make a decision. But both Canada and the EU have pledged to meet the Kyoto targets
regardless.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Karen Kelly in Ottawa.

Related Links

Restaurants Serve Up Less Waste

When you go to your favorite restaurant, you might not realize how many carrot tops, onion peels and potato scrapings end up in the garbage. In the past, most of that has gone into landfills, but one community is trying to change that by running a pilot restaurant composting program. It hopes to serve as a model for other communities throughout the region. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Nora Flaherty reports:

Transcript

When you go to your favorite restaurant, you might not realize how many carrot tops, onion peels
and potato scrapings end up in the garbage. In the past, most of that has gone into landfillS, but one
community is trying to change that by running a pilot restaurant composting program. It hopes to
serve as a model for other communities throughout the region. The Great Lakes Radio
Consortium’s Nora Flaherty reports:


Rene Graff tries to run her restaurant in the most environmentally sound way she can. But there
was one thing – she couldn’t do anything with all the peels, rinds and other vegetable waste that her
cooks generated. Her staff suggested composting, but it wasn’t practical to set up a compost pile in
back where it might attract pests. And it wasn’t practical for someone in the restaurant to take the
stuff away.


“The city didn’t have a compost program where they could pick it up, and as a business, you really
couldn’t have somebody driving the waste out to the compost center, so that was a really big
obstacle for us, was having pick-up.”


Graff started talking to people in her town, Ann Arbor, Michigan. They talked about ways to work
it out so that her restaurant, and others, could compost their food preparation waste. Then they all
found out that the Solid Waste Department had been thinking about the same thing. They all
worked together, and in the end, they put together a program where for 2 months, three local
restaurants separated all of their waste from prepping vegetables, along with coffee grounds and
filters, for the city’s yard waste trucks to pick up.


(kitchen sound – chopping)


They found it was easier than they thought it would be. Emily Adkison manages the kitchen at
Graff’s restaurant, The Arbor Brewing Company. She helped create the system that they used for
food prep composting.


“We would have several bins, one at every station, one at the prep area, one up back on the line,
one right over there by the dish area so the servers can put their used napkins in and coffee
grounds. It’s just as easy as having, instead of a garbage can, you have a 5-gallon pickle bucket
and you throw your scraps in there instead of in the garbage.”


The stuff that the workers throw in the buckets gets picked up by the city’s yard waste composting
trucks. Then, it’s taken to Ann Arbor’s Materials Reclamation Facility, or MRF.


The MRF is a huge, windswept area, with a big population of crows and big, long piles of partially-
decomposed leaves everywhere, emitting a lot of steam and a very earthy smell. Nancy Stone is
educational director for the Solid Waste Department. It’s her job to show people what happens to
their yard and now, food waste, once they’ve sent it here. The whole process takes about a year.
The end result is a high-quality compost, that the city sells to local farmers and gardeners.


“It’s rather crumbly in nature. It has a very sweet smell to it and it looks to me like beautifully
ground espresso grounds. It’s just, I like to garden myself. This is the best stuff to garden with.
This stuff is the best stuff to think of putting on that garden.”


The Ann Arbor restaurant compost pilot program ran for 2 months, and in that time, the city
collected 9 tons of stuff that would have been thrown away otherwise. For Graff, whose restaurant
alone generated one ton of food waste, this is a big argument for future programs, and against
people who say that this kind of program is too small to work:


“When I’m dealing with nay-sayers, the biggest thing they say, ‘if it’s such a small amount that
you’re talking about, is it worth the time, is it worth the effort?’ and I think what people should
know is that every little bit counts, as in I think we were shocked to discover that we diverted a ton
of waste in 2 months, and I would say yes, even the smallest little gesture can have a big impact,
especially if everybody’s doing it.”


And more restaurants will be doing it in the spring — the program is starting up again in May, this
time with 3 more partners. And the people involved in the Ann Arbor program hope that if it works
in this community, it will help lead to a change in the way that other communities, all over the
region, deal with food waste.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Nora Flaherty.

U.S. Army Corps Seeks Neighbor’s Support

  • A freighter navigates the American Narrows in the St. Lawrence River. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers wants to embark on a $20 million study to look at expanding the St. Lawrence Seaway's locks and channels, but they first need Canada's support. Photo by David Sommerstein.

The St. Lawrence Seaway is a major economic engine for the communities of the Great Lakes. Shippers and ports say a deeper channel for bigger freighters will add billions of dollars in trade and create new jobs. Environmentalists say replumbing the Seaway would devastate the region’s ecology. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers wants to move ahead on a 20 million dollar study of Seaway expansion. But it’s waiting for support and money from Canada. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s David Sommerstein reports:

Transcript

The St. Lawrence Seaway is a major economic engine for the communities of the Great Lakes.
Shippers and ports say a deeper channel for bigger freighters will add billions of dollars in trade and
create new jobs. Environmentalists say replumbing the Seaway would devastate the region’s
ecology. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers wants to move ahead on a 20 million dollar study of
Seaway expansion. But it’s waiting for support and money from Canada. The Great Lakes Radio
Consortium’s David Sommerstein reports:


The Army Corps of Engineers’ study will set the Seaway’s agenda for years to come. That’s why
ports on both sides of the border say it’s important to update a system that’s almost fifty years old.
Keith Robson is president and CEO of the port of Hamilton, Ontario.


“You know, when it was first built, it was probably the right size and now the world has moved
on, so we need to take a look at what we need to do for the future.”


The world of shipping has moved on to so-called “Panamax” size. That’s the term used for huge
freighters that carry cargo containers to coastal ports and through the Panama Canal. A preliminary
study says if those Panamax ships could squeeze into the Seaway, a billion and a half dollars more a
year could float into ports such as Hamilton, Duluth, Toledo, Chicago, and Detroit.


But while bigger may be better in the Corps’ projections, shippers first want to make sure the old
locks keep working as is. Reg Lanteigne of the Canadian Shipowners Association says Canadian
shippers rely on the Seaway to handle 70 million tons of cargo a year.


“None of our economy could sustain a catastrophic failure of that waterway. The only issue here
is not how deep, how wide, how long the ditch should be, but the most important issue is how
long the current ditch can last.”


For the 20 million dollar study to proceed at all, Canada must fund half of it. Canada owns 13 of
the Seaway’s 15 locks. And the shipping channel is partially in Canadian waters. But even though
a decision was expected months ago, Canada has yet to sign on. Critics believe that’s because
Canada sees problems in the Corps’ approach.


Dozens of environmental groups across the Great Lakes have slammed the study. They say it’s
cooked in the shipping industry’s favor. They say it’s predestined to support expansion with dire
environmental consequences.


Expansion foes gathered recently at a meeting organized by the New York-based group ‘Save The
River.’ Their ears perked up when Mary Muter took the floor. She’s vice-president of the
Georgian Bay Association, an Ontario-based environmental group. She says Canada is wary of
expansion. The first time the Seaway was dug, water levels dropped more than a foot. With even
lower levels today, Muter says places like Lake Huron’s Georgian Bay can’t afford to lose more
water.


“Wetlands have literally dried up, converted into grass meadows in some locations. Another
concern is access for shoreline property owners to get to their cottages that are on islands.”


There are also concerns of invasive species depleting fisheries and channel dredging stirring up toxic
sediment.


But Muter says Canada is also wary of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has developed a
reputation of skewing studies to justify more work. Muter says Canada’s Transport Minister has
assured her one thing. He’s not interested in an expansion study that leaves environmental issues as
an afterthought.


“If the U.S. transport department wants to involve the Army Corps, that’s fine. But Canada is not
giving money directly to the U.S. Army Corps to replumb the Great Lakes.”


Both transportation departments have remained tight-lipped through months of negotiations, leaving
interest groups on both sides of the debate to speculate.


Stephanie Weiss directs Save The River. She says Canada’s delay may mean a chance to broaden
the scope of the study beyond shipping.


“Y’know, is this an opportunity to change the shape of the study into something that more interest
groups and more citizens around the Great Lakes can buy into?”


Reg Lanteigne of the Canadian Shipowners Association says the delay is just a bureaucratic one.


“The mandate has been agreed, the scope and governance has all been agreed. All we’re looking
for now is a suitable location and time and date to sign this off.”


On the U.S. side of the border, Congress has allocated 1.5 million dollars for the first year of the
study. That’s less than the Corps had asked for. And the legislation includes a special warning. It
directs the Corps to pay more attention to the environmental and recreational impacts of building a
bigger Seaway channel.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m David Sommerstein.

New Law Places Warning on Fluorescent Lamps

Soon you’ll be seeing a label on some lights that you might buy for your house. The label will warn that the light bulbs contain mercury. It’s the result of a five-year court battle. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports:

Transcript

Soon you’ll be seeing a label on some lights that you might buy for your house. The label will
warn that the light bulbs contain mercury. It’s the result of a five-year court battle. The Great
Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports:


Fluorescent lamps need mercury to operate. But mercury is known to cause health problems. So,
keeping it out of the environment is important. The State of Vermont passed a law requiring a
label, warning of the mercury. The lamp makers fought it, but finally lost when the Supreme
Court refused to hear the case. It’s impossible to label just the bulbs sold in Vermont, so, that
means you’ll see the labels in your state too. That includes those newer energy efficient compact
fluorescent lights. Michael Bender is Director of the Mercury Policy Project and lobbied for the
Vermont law.


“We fully support and encourage people to use these energy efficient lights, but at the same time
we encourage consumers to be aware that they have mercury in them and that they should not be
disposed in the trash. Instead they should be kept intact and not broken and brought in for
recycling.”


The labels will begin appearing later this year.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Lester Graham.

Drivers Turn to Car Sharing

  • This map is used by car sharing members in Ottawa, Ontario. It shows the location of cars available for pick-up (Image courtesy of Vrtucar – Ottawa, Ontario).

    Want to know more about car sharing?


Cars are among the largest polluters in the world. They contribute to the smog that hangs over many large cities and they’re a major culprit in the creation of greenhouse gas emissions. But most of us are reluctant to give up our cars altogether. As the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Karen Kelly reports, a growing number of North Americans are opting to share a car instead:

Transcript

Cars are among the largest polluters in the world. They contribute to the smog that hangs over
many large cities and they’re a major culprit in the creation of greenhouse gas emissions. But
most of us are reluctant to give up our cars altogether. As the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s
Karen Kelly reports, a growing number of North Americans are opting to share a car instead:


(sound of stroller)


Nathalie Buu is pushing a stroller past the shops in a trendy neighborhood in Canada’s capital,
Ottawa. She’s heading for a car which is parked about four blocks from her apartment. It’s a
Toyota Echo and she shares it with about 15 other people. When she gets to the parking lot, Buu
wheels the stroller over to a black box attached to the side of a building.


“So you take the, umm, open the lock box and the keys for the car are inside.”


(key noise)


Buu belongs to Vrtucar, a car-sharing company based in Ottawa. There are almost 200
members, and they share 11 cars. The cars are parked all over the downtown area.


Buu has two kids and a regular commute. Still, she and her husband decided they didn’t really
need a vehicle.


“When we had a car, we just found it more of a headache to have to think about repairing it or
bringing it for an oil change, and having had a car in a busy city like Montreal, we don’t really
agree with having cars in the city. It’s just too busy a place and you should be able to use public
transport, I think.”


Nowadays, Buu takes the bus to her job as a doctor at a local hospital. And when she needs to
use a car, she calls an 800 number to reserve one.


The decision to share a vehicle has been quickly gaining in popularity. Car sharing began in post
war Europe. The first North American company opened in Quebec in 1994.


Today, there are 29 companies in North America, most of them in bigger cities like New York,
Chicago and Toronto.


Susan Shaheen is a researcher at UC-Berkeley who studies car-sharing. She says companies tend
to spring up in places where owning a car has become a hassle.


“These organizations tend to thrive when driving disincentives exist such as high parking costs or
congestion. Alternative modes are easily accessible, such as transit and something we see quite
often in the early adoption of this type of service is some environmental consciousness.”


Concern about the environment was one of the main reasons Wilson Wood and his business
partner Chris Bradshaw started Vrtucar. They bought the first car in 2000. They hope to have
twenty by the end of next year. The weird thing is, Wood says they’re actually opposed to
driving.


“I can’t think of two worse guys to run a car business. You know, we hate cars. We believe the
hierarchy of transportation needs should be: your first choice is your foot, your second choice is
your bike, your third choice is your bus, and the last choice should be an automobile.”


But Wood says the reality is, sometimes you need a car. He finds most members use them for
longer trips within the city, where public transportation isn’t convenient. Not surprisingly, the
cars are especially in demand on evenings and weekends. But the company keeps them in
parking lots spaced just a half mile apart. So if the closest car isn’t available, another one is
nearby.


Nathalie Buu says she uses the car for big shopping trips or to attend meetings in the suburbs.
And she says she rarely has trouble getting one.


“I tend to be last minute and I’ll just call and say is the car available right now? And very often it
is. I’ve never had a problem that way, which has been great.”


Buu says car sharing is cheaper for them as well. They don’t have a car payment. They don’t pay
for parking, insurance, maintenance or gas on a car they’d only use a few times a month.


However, they do pay fees. It starts with a 500 dollar insurance deductible which is returned if
you leave the company. There’s also a monthly fee of either 10, 20 or 30 dollars, depending on
how often you drive. And you pay for time and distance, which averages about 15 dollars for a
three hour, 22-mile trip.


It’s cheaper than renting a car for the day. But still, 15 bucks may seem a bit pricey for 3 hours in
a car. Make this argument to Wilson Wood and he’ll pull out figures from the Canadian
Automobile Association. They estimate it costs about 5 thousand dollars a year to own a new car.
Plus, Wood argues, car share members use their cars more wisely.


“Our members are making more efficient and more environmentally intelligent choices because
they’re bundling their trips. They say, ‘oh geez, I know I’ve only got the car once this week and
I’m going to take it for 2 hours on Friday afternoon after work so I’m going to do this, this and
this.'”


(sound in car)


Not everyone joins just to save money.


Nathalie Buu says her choice was a more personal one.


“If everybody was doing this sort of thing, then we’d have less pollution in the cities. And if
you’re thinking about the future, not only your future but the future of our own kids and the air
they’re breathing and the life they’ll live, I think it’s important to think about that and not just our
immediate needs.”


But it’s not always easy. And Buu says that’s okay. Because she feels like she’s helping to create
the kind of environment that she’d like to live in.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Karen Kelly.

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Botulism Outbreak Threatens Wildlife

Workers are busy picking up dead birds along some Great Lakes shores to try to slow the spread of a toxin that’s killing wildlife. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports:

Transcript

Workers are busy picking up dead birds along some Great Lakes shores to try to slow the spread
of a toxin that’s killing wildlife. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports:


It’s estimated that millions of fish and tens of thousands of birds have died because of a Type-E
botulism outbreak. Ward Stone is the wildlife pathologist for the New York State Department of
Environmental Conservation. He says he has crews patrolling the shores of Lakes Erie and
Ontario picking up the carcasses of seagulls, cormorants, and diving ducks who’ve eaten fish with
botulism.


“Because if an eagle comes in and then feeds on one of these carcasses containing this poison,
they in turn become poisoned. So, we think we are saving thousands of birds and mammals as
well like raccoons and skunks and coyotes and even dogs that would feed on carcasses on the
beach.”


Stone believes the botulism outbreak is due to an upset in nature caused by zebra mussels, quagga
mussels, and round goby fish. All three are invasive species believed to have been transported
from foreign ports to the Great Lakes in the ballast water of cargo ships.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Lester Graham.

Private Endangered Species Sites Made Public

The courts have ruled that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service cannot keep the whereabouts of endangered species secret. The ruling comes in a case where a builder tried to find out whether there was an endangered species on land he wanted to buy for development. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports:

Transcript

The courts have ruled that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service cannot keep the
whereabouts of endangered species secret. The ruling comes in a case where a builder
tried to find out whether there was an endangered species on land he wanted to buy for
development. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports:


The Fish and Wildlife Service says it didn’t want to reveal whether it found endangered
species on private property, afraid it would lose the trust of private landowners if it made
the information public. So, when the National Association of Home Builders filed a
request for the locations of an endangered species, the Fish and Wildlife Service omitted
all the sitings on private land. Jerry Howard is the CEO of the home builders group. He
says builders need that information.


“Our members who are looking at buying land in areas affected will be able to make
informed decisions and comply with the regulations because they’ll know what they’re
walking into. And we’ll be able to protect the species ’cause we’ll know that they’re
there and we’ll be able not to do things that harm their habitat.”


The Fish and Wildlife Service could appeal the ruling because it sets a precedent that
could be used by any group to determine where endangered species are located.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Lester Graham.

Treated Lumber a Health Hazard?

A just-released study by two environmental groups has found high levels of arsenic on the surface of pressure-treated wood products. The Environmental Working Group and the Healthy Building Network tested pressure-treated wood purchased from home improvement stores in 13 cities. In releasing their findings, the groups are calling for a ban on the use of the lumber in construction. Their findings add to the growing concern about the safety of the chemicals used to treat this wood. Those chemicals are now being re-evaluated by both the Canadian and American governments. But as the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Karen Kelly reports, the two governments are approaching the issue differently:

Transcript

A just released study by two environmental groups has found high levels of arsenic on the surface of pressure-treated wood products. The Environmental Working Group and the Healthy Building Network tested pressure-treated wood purchased from home improvement stores in 13 cities. In releasing their findings, the groups are calling for a ban on the use of the lumber in construction. Their findings add to the growing concern about the safety of the chemicals used to treat this wood. Those chemicals are now being re-evaluated by both the Canadian and American governments. But as the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Karen Kelly reports, the two governments are approaching the issue differently.


For years, Don Houston at the Canadian Institute of Child Health has been calling for warning labels on pressure-treated wood. The lumber is used in playground structures and picnic tables throughout North America. And it’s treated with a preservative called Chromated Copper Arsenate, which protects the wood from insects and fungi. The preservative is made from arsenic, chromium and copper. And Houston says children who are exposed to the wood may be exposed to those chemicals, as well.


“It’s not just children’s play structures. I’d rather suspect even more problematic is the deck that’s on the back of their house because often times children spend more time there. It’s all sorts of structures that are put in outdoors – decks, balconies, retaining walls; even the telephone pole that might be in a schoolyard might be problematic.”


Houston says the problem arises when arsenic and chromium, which are both carcinogens, remain on the surface of the wood. A study of ten playgrounds conducted by Health Canada in the late 1980’s detected both substances on the surface of play structures made with pressure treated wood. Arsenic and chromium were also found in the nearby soil. Health Canada warns people who work with pressure-treated wood to wear gloves and a mask and to thoroughly wash clothing and exposed skin once they’re finished. The agency also warns against burning pressure treated wood. But Houston says there are still no guidelines for children.


“It doesn’t make a lot of sense for the guy who’s building it to use gloves and then the child ten minutes after it’s built to be walking over it and running on it barefoot and having greater potential health impact from the exposure.”


But scientists at Health Canada say the research findings have been mixed. They point to studies conducted by the U.S. EPA in the late 1980’s that found minimal health risks. Now, fifteen years since they last evaluated these chemicals, both Health Canada and the EPA are taking another look. The update is required by law in both countries. Richard Martin is a toxicologist at Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency. He says the presence of arsenic is not always a cause for concern.


“Although there’s a number of reports out there of arsenic being found in soil, and although they’re useful, arsenic is found in all soil. So we need to go the extra step to determine to what extent there’s potential for exposure to children and that type of thing.”


Martin says his agency is reviewing research to determine the effect of exposure on both adults who work with cca-treated wood and children who play near it. But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is taking the review a step further. Jim Jones, the deputy director of the EPA’s office of pesticide programs, says they’re concentrating on the exposure to children first.


“It was the children’s exposure through cca-treated wood we think are the most important to look at as they’re the group in the population that is likely to have the greatest exposures, just because of the way in which they interact with playground equipment and on decks.”


The EPA also plans to take soil samples near cca-treated wood structures in 75 playgrounds around the United States. And it’s considering a recommendation that people apply sealants to pressure-treated wood in the interim. The EPA’s scientific advisory panel suggested the agency take that measure. The EPA and Health Canada are collaborating on the re-evaluation – sharing their findings and their recommendations. Don Houston of the Canadian Institute of Child Health hopes that will lead to legislation in both countries that will restrict the use of this lumber in places where children play. The EPA and Health Canada are expected to announce their recommendations next spring.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Karen Kelly.