Why being green is not always being non toxic: hazards of CCA treated and lead painted wood

painted tableGreen is good.  But, sometimes being green isn’t the same as being non toxic.  Fox’s hit television show House hammered that point home last night with its episode Emancipation.  (And I have to say it is sort of fun being able to reference a mainstream hit television show to make a point about toxic chemicals in our homes!) 

So, if you didn’t see last night’s episode, one of the perplexing medical cases involved a young woman.  Of course the team can’t figure out what is wrong with her in the beginning, and investigate her history and her living arrangements.  Turns out, she  had been making furniture out of copper chromated arsenate (CCA) treated wood.  If you aren’t familiar with CCA treated wood, basically, CCA has been used as a preservative for outdoor wood for a number of years.  If you want to know more about it being used in decks and outdoor play structures and how to reduce exposure, read my blog on CCA hazards.  

In any event, as the show’s summary states:

House asks the team what the girl’s homemade furniture looks like. Sawing or burning treated wood releases arsenic into the air and gets absorbed into the internal organs, which is why it did not appear on the blood test. Foreman has the team test her hair for arsenic and then chelate it out of her blood.

Ultimately, it turns out that the arsenic was helping her ’cause she actually had leukemia.  But, for those of us in real life, the arsenic exposure would be of concern. 

And situations like that do happen when re-using or re-purposing materials.  

I came across a similar situation with a couple very into sustainable, green living.  They were expecting their first baby and had me use my Niton XRF analyzer to check items in their home for lead, cadmium, chromium and more.  They had a lot of furniture that they had purchased from thrift stores and antique shops.  It is a very Southern California beachy vibe – older worn wood furniture with peeling paint – very urban shabby chic.  Can you guess the problem?  Almost all of the painted furniture tested high for lead.  The current standard for lead in paints is 600 parts per million (ppm) lead.  Their furniture?  It tested at the lowest at 85,000 ppm, and other pieces much higher.  Not what you want when you are going to have a baby pulling up on the furniture.

So, as much as they were trying to re-used and re-purpose, sometimes it doesn’t make sense.  Painted wood that pre-dates 1978 or CCA treated wood should not be used to make furniture without first confirming the absence of lead and arsenic, respectively.  

If you do have peeling paint furniture, keep in mind that it just isn’t kids eating the paint chips that can elevate their blood lead levels.  No, it can be the lead in dust around the home – kids ingest a lot of dust from their hands, or mouthing objects that get dust collected on them.  If you can’t get rid of a favorite piece, try tucking in a corner where it doesn’t get played with, pulled on, or used.

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