New treatment changes lumber industry

Published 6:00 am Tuesday, January 13, 2004

Lumber officials here are ready to move forward in providinglumber free of the controversial arsenic-based treatment used formany years.

William “Bill” Behan IV, president of Columbus Lumber, saidpublic perception has overstated the possible dangers of thearsenic-based chemical used to treat some lumber. The industry wasalready moving away from those treatments before they agreed withgovernment officials to cease production of the controversialproduct, he said.

As president of Columbus Lumber, Behan is both a manufacturer oftreated lumber and a retailer. This position gives him a ratherunique perspective on the industry and controversy surroundingtreated lumber, he said.

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Behan said public safety wasn’t as large a consideration in thetransition from chromated copper arsenate (CCA) to anothercompound, amino copper quat (ACQ), as was the public perception ofthe danger.

“It’s essentially a non-event,” Behan said. “The industry agreedto make a transition to ACQ not because of production performanceor public injury, but because of the public perception of thisproduct.”

The public perception of pressure-treated lumber became tainteda few years ago when people began objecting to the arsenic-basedtreatment. Environmentalists link the arsenic in CCA-treated lumberto bladder, liver and lung cancer.

A draft study released in December 2003 by the EnvironmentalProtection Agency found that the lifetime risk of anarsenic-related cancer for children who play frequently onCCA-treated structures could be as high as one in 100,000 — 10times the one-in-a-million threshold the agency usually considersto be a public health threat, according to the USA Today.

Jim Hale, public relations for the Wood Preservative ScienceCouncil, which advises the industry, pointed out that even the EPAhas cautioned use of its study to draw any conclusions. Theapproach used in the study was entirely new and an EPA peer reviewpanel warned the results were subject to a “high degree ofuncertainty.”

“The arsenic contained in a bowl of cooked rice is much greaterthan that associated with playing on a structure constructed ofCCA-treated wood,” he said.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission recommended in October2003 that the government take no further action against the lumberindustry. The CPSC said that over a lifetime arsenic exposures fromsome foods, drinking water and other sources were much larger thanfrom treated wood.

“American consumers should be greatly reassured of this news,”Hale said. “This recommendation comes from the professional staffof the federal agency charged with protecting the public.”

Regardless of whether the danger exists, Behan said, theindustry was already beginning to phase out CCA-treated lumber whenit met with government officials nearly two years ago and agreed tocease production of the lumber in December 2003.

“(The EPA) never banned it,” he said. “It’s still a product inindustrial use, but the industry has voluntarily terminated itsproduction for residential use. The industry sees it as a move tothe next generation of treated product.”

Columbus Lumber recently spent “a significant amount of money”to convert their treatment plant from using CCA to ACQ. The newchemical disagrees with old, and the entire plant had to be cleanedof all traces of CCA to make the conversion.

“It was very costly for us to make the switch,” Behan said, “butACQ is definitely the dominant choice in the future of treatedlumber.”

The industry’s conversion away from CCA-treated lumber has had asignificant effect on available lumber, Behan said. CCA-treatedlumber dominated 90 percent of the market, with the remaining 10percent spread among other types of chemical treatment. ACQ-treatedlumber has now claimed 80 percent of the market.

The ACQ-treated lumber will still have the greenish tint and bevirtually indistinguishable from CCA-treated lumber, Behan said.The average shopper won’t notice the difference, except possibly incost.

ACQ-treated lumber will retail for an average of 30 percenthigher than CCA because the “raw chemical cost” to the manufacturerhas increased threefold, Behan said. The actual cost of treatmentis not significantly different.

“It’s still going to have the same production performance interms of decay, rot and insect infestation, and it will still havethe same lifetime warranty,” Behan said.

The old CCA-treated lumber is still available on the marketuntil retailers and producers sell their existing stock, he said,so it will be weeks or possibly months before consumers notice thechange.

“We’re selling off our CCA and replacing it with our new ACQproduct,” Behan said. “We’re very comfortable with the transition.We’ve known it would take a lot of time and effort to explain thescience of the changes to the public. We’re excited about it. It’sall about performance.”

Columbus Lumber produces more than 35 million board feet oftreated lumber a year, servicing a 300-mile radius that includesNew Orleans, Jackson, Hattiesburg and other metropolitan areas.