Pesticides in Pressure-treated Wood Pose Health Risks

Let me tell you a really sad story.

Several months ago I started trolling Craig's List for a used wood play structure. My friend had found a pretty nice one for free and I was a little jealous. (Note: my friend did have to drive an hour to pick it up and then invested about a hundred dollars replacing some beams and other parts -- but still, what a bargain!) Also, we had recently purchased a home that was, tragically, not walking distance to a single park. I went to look at a few structures and was unimpressed, especially given the asking price. Then I found one really close by for a great price. The whole family swung by to see it on the way to the farmer's market and we immediately gave the seller a down payment. It seemed perfect: 4 swings (enough for my 3 children plus a friend), monkey bars, a fast slide, and an enclosed fort under the tower.

Soon after my husband rented a truck and enlisted some friends to help him move it to our backyard. The seller was nice enough to do much of the disassembling. Then my husband spent a couple of weekends reassembling it. My kids were thrilled. All seemed well with the world. Until I happened upon some information about pressure-treated wood and arsenic.

And suddenly I realized that the play structure my husband had worked so hard to assemble in my backyard might not be the all-natural wholesome goodness (what's more natural than wood?) that I had taken it for, but might in fact be wood treated with chemical preservatives (a.k.a., pesticides).

I called back the seller and he confirmed that the play structure was pressure-treated pine that was about 8 or 9 years old. Wood treated with preservatives containing arsenic were being sold as recently as 2004, so it was possible but not certain that our play structure contained arsenic. I learned that a greenish hue and staple-like slits all along the wood are the tell-tale signs of arsenic-treated wood, but that the absence of both doesn't guarantee the absence of arsenic. The wood of our used play structure didn't have a greenish hue and slits, but much of the wood in our landscaping did and I started to notice that type of wood in school yards and parks and park play structures everywhere.

For the umpteenth time, I fell down the rabbit hole of eco-hysteria. Every spare moment I had (plus many moments with my small children whining and screaming in the background) was now devoted to researching pressure-treated wood online. I read much of a sobering 2001 report by EWG and the Healthy Building Network on the dangers of touching pressure-treated wood. According to the report, "Arsenic sticks to children’s hands when they play on treated wood, and is absorbed through the skin and ingested when they put their hands in their mouths" (source). They reported that:
We estimate that one out of every 500 children who regularly play on swing sets and decks made from arsenic treated wood, or one child in an average size elementary school, will develop lung or bladder cancer later in life as a result of these exposures. (source)

I started cataloging the numerous recommendations by government agencies and non-profit organizations for mitigating the risks associated with arsenic-treated wood. These include:
  • Seal the wood at least every year, more often in high traffic hand areas (ladder rungs, hand rails, etc.)
  • Remove your shoes before entering your home after playing on or using structures.
  • Discourage children from putting their hands in their mouths during play.
  • Wash hands and clothes after using CCA-treated equipment.
  • Never allow children to eat on CCA-treated wood (many picnic tables, decks and other outdoor wood structures are pressure-treated wood, possibly CCA-treated wood)
  • Do not store children’s toys under decks, because arsenic leaches off the wood when it rains and could coat the toys.
  • Parents and pet owners should keep children and animals away from the dirt beneath and immediately surrounding arsenic treated wood structures.
  • Do not power wash or power sand, but try to prevent splinters which could result in injecting arsenic directly into a child's blood stream.
  • Wear a dust mask and thoroughly wash your hands, clothes, and the work area after cutting or building with CCA-treated wood.
  • Avoid growing food crops near CCA-treated wood, or in dirt that once had CCA-treated wood over it or next to it. 

$200 on Craig's List. How could I resist?

Now every time I saw my 18-month-old's chubby little hands gripping the rungs as she climbed up the ladder, all I could think about was how I might be poisoning my children with arsenic. I was pretty sure I could not follow all of those recommendations (keep my kids' hands out of their mouths???), and even if I could, would I ever mitigate the risks well enough to not worry about my kids' exposure? Probably not.

Here's what happened next:
  1. I expressed my concerns to my husband. You can imagine how well that went over after he had spent multiple weekends moving and putting together the play structure.
  2. My husband asked me why I hadn't researched wooden play structures before making this purchase, since typically I, in his words, "research everything to death." 
  3. After several days of research, I determined that if the play structure was treated with arsenic, I would dispose of it (arsenic-treated wood should not be recycled or reused, but should go straight to the landfill unless your municipality has a specific method for dealing with this hazardous waste).
  4. I considered ordering a kit to test for arsenic in the wood ($50+ including shipping). I later found out that Center for Environmental Health will test a wood sample for arsenic for free (donations welcome) if you mail them a sample.
  5. After spending much of a long holiday weekend angsting, I finally was able to contact the manufacturer of my play structure. After describing it, they assured me that this play structure was manufactured after their company had phased out CCA. They now use ACQ (Ammoniacal Copper Quaternary), which is arsenic-free.
  6. I considered keeping the play structure and started asking around about ACQ (Ammoniacal Copper Quaternary). Some green building folks remarked that ACQ was supposed to be better than CCA. Others recommended getting rid of the ACQ-treated play structure. There are also concerns about newer preservatives using micronized or nano-sized particles.

In the end, I decided get rid of the play structure, even though I felt quite sure it was not treated with arsenic. I thought about how often industry replaces a toxic chemical with an untested and unresearched chemical that turns out to be toxic too -- the so-called "toxic treadmill" (classic example: flame retardants). I put so much effort into keeping pesticides out of my home, from the food we eat, to our pest management and yard maintenance. I just couldn't be responsible for placing a huge hunk of wood injected with EPA-registered pesticides into my yard for my children to play on. So I resold the ACQ-treated play structure on Craig's List to someone who didn't care that it was pressure-treated wood. Needless to say, it was an extremely painful decision.

In Search of a Play Structure Made with Untreated Wood

But now after having had a play structure, I wanted one. Plus I felt terrible about removing the play structure from our yard without anything to take its place for my kids to play on. So I started hunting for a play structure made of cedar or redwood, which are naturally rot- and insect-resistant and do not need to be treated with pesticides. At first I was trying to find something on Craig's List, but the used cedar and redwood play structures tended to be super old and poorly maintained or selling for $1000 or more. Rather than spend that much money and time and energy purchasing, disassembling, moving, and reassembling a used play structure not knowing how much longer it would be safe to play on, my husband and I decided we would prefer to purchase something new that would last for 10+ years.

After weeks and weeks of online research and phone calls to companies, we purchased a new play structure. And we love it!

Click here for the happy ending: We love our new CedarWorks play structure!

Additional Reading about Arsenic in Outdoor Wood


  1. wow this is a phenomenally well written and researched post!! I had no idea about pressure treated wood and play structures (and the projection that 1 out of 500 children will get cancer because of it- scary!).

    Because of my childhood, my answer is always- "well, we should build our own"... except that would only work with my dad and brother and it would be a huge endeavour for myself and husband lol.

    I'm excited to read the happy ending and to know more about your solution. And I'm really sorry about the play structure you did find (it looks awesome), but I feel like you made the best decision.

    1. Thanks, Ecoyogini, for the kind words and vote of confidence in our decision! I don't know about near you, but cedar and redwood is so expensive where I live that I'm not sure we would come out ahead! Plus, we don't really have those skills around here.


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