Attitudes Toward Treated Wood

Linda Benedict  |  9/21/2005 12:45:02 AM

Richard P. Vlosky and Todd F. Shupe

Wood is a renewable natural resource typically preservative-treated to ensure structural integrity in many exterior applications. Preservative treatment of wood has a long history. Early settlers to the New World in the 17th century first used wood preservatives to protect homes and other structures.

Today, about 44 percent of the 13 billion board feet of southern yellow pine (SYP) lumber produced is pressuretreated with some type of a preservative system. In the past, chromated copper arsenate (CCA) was used for about 80 percent of SYP treated wood production. In recent years, there has been negative publicity about perceived hazards to human health from exposure to wood treated with CCA. These concerns had to do with direct human contact with arsenic in the preservative as well as concerns about leaching of arsenic into groundwater. To remain a viable industry, an agreement between the treating industry and the Environmental Protection Agency resulted in a voluntary phase-out of CCA-treated wood for residential uses at the end of 2003. Although the EPA has not concluded that CCA-treated wood poses any unreasonable risk to the public or the environment, arsenic is a known human carcinogen, and the agency believes that any reduction in the levels of potential exposure is desirable. Most wood treaters that used CCA have converted to alternative arsenic-free preservatives. Following are some perceptions and attitudes about treated wood from groups that manufacture, sell or use treated wood or products.

Children’s Playground Equipment Buyers
Children have been targeted as an at-risk population to exposure from playing on outdoor playground equipment constructed from treated wood. We examined U.S. children’s playground equipment buyer perceptions, attitudes and buying patterns for treated wood. Respondents represented 431 preschools, daycare centers, municipal parks and K-8 schools. Thirty-nine percent of respondents had outdoor play equipment fabricated with treated wood. Thirty-three percent had either a somewhat or very positive perception about treated wood, while 41 percent of respondents fell at the midpoint indicating a neutral position. Twenty-six percent had a negative perception. Of the respondents that had purchased playground equipment fabricated with treated wood, 40 percent were concerned about health risks to children. When put in context of other materials used to fabricate playground equipment that respondents plan to purchase, treated wood ranked a distant fourth after plastic, steel and aluminum.

Playground Equipment Manufacturers
We also conducted a study of all 188 children’s playground equipment manufacturers in the United States. Forty-eight percent of respondents fabricated outdoor play equipment with some type of treated wood. Fourteen percent of respondents had an extremely negative perception of treated wood, and an additional 18 percent had a somewhat negative perception. Eighteen percent had a somewhat positive perception and 27 percent had a very positive perception of treated wood.

Minimization of chemicals and health risks were important to respondents when considering the materials they use to manufacture children’s playsets. These criteria were closely followed by performance, cost, and years of service. Resistance to wooddestroying insects was highest ranked in the South and ranked seventh overall. Of the respondents that manufactured playground equipment with treated wood, 12 percent were concerned about legal or liability issues. Related concerns were health risks to children, lack of knowledge on long-term effects of human exposure, and replacement costs.

U.S. Home Builders
In this study, we looked at what the top 500 homebuilders in the United States think about treated wood. Homebuilders significantly influence demand for wood products, including treated wood. Only 1 percent of the 116 respondents had an extremely negative perception of treated wood while 38 percent had a somewhat positive perception and 32 percent had an extremely positive perception. Sixty-one percent of respondents felt that treated wood is safe for humans in outdoor applications and safe if handled and disposed of properly. Fifty-one percent said it is safe for builders to use. Further, 42 percent believed it is safe for children’s outdoor play equipment, and 38 percent believed treated wood is safe for pets or farm animal exposure. Finally, 55 percent of respondents desired additional information on treated wood.

Homeowners
This research was conducted to better understand U.S. homeowner perceptions about building materials in general with particular emphasis on treated wood products. The results indicated that the 451 homeowner respondents out of 1,500 surveyed had a generally positive opinion of the safety and performance of treated wood. Only 5 percent of respondents had a negative perception of treated wood, 40 percent had a somewhat positive perception and nearly a quarter had a very positive perception. Fifty-two percent had some product at their residence made from treated wood, primarily decks and landscape timbers while 75 percent said that they would be willing to use treated wood. The major reasons of those unwilling to use treated wood were livability and health concerns. Respondents indicated that individual wood products companies are the least trusted to provide consumers with treated wood safety and handling information, and environmental organizations are the most trusted.

Public Understanding
A number of common responses across these four groups indicate that there is a general misunderstanding from respondents about treated wood and the companies that manufacture it:
  • 54 percent of playground equipment buyers and 50 percent of homeowners were unsure if some types of treated wood is safer than others.
  • 70 percent of playground equipment sellers said they would like more information on treated wood proper use and handling.
  • 34 percent of home builders did not understand the process of treating wood.
  • 49 percent of homeowners reported no understanding of the basic concept of wood treating.
  • 79 percent of homeowners and 33 percent of builders reported that they did not have knowledge of treated wood consumer information sheets (a requirement for retailers to have on display at point-of-sale).
  • 60 percent of homeowners and 55 percent of home builders desired additional information on treated wood.

The lack of trust in the treating industry to provide information to consumers, builders and others that use treated wood is another issue that was consistent in these studies. For example:

  • Only 27 percent of homeowners trust safety claims made by treated wood manufacturers.
  • Both playground equipment buyers and sellers said that the most trusted entity to monitor treated wood and provide information is the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) while the second least trusted entity to provide this information are treated wood chemical manufacturers (after attorneys).
  • 24 percent of home builders do not trust treated wood manufacturer safety claims.
The lack of understanding about treated wood and the lack of trust in the industry indicate that industry players, including lumber manufacturers, treaters and chemical manufacturers, need to be proactive in educating the general public in an unbiased manner based on science. Ultimately, customer perceptions and behavior will determine the future of the treated wood industry.

Richard P. Vlosky, Professor and Director, and Todd F. Shupe, Associate Professor, Louisiana Forest Products Development Center, School of Renewable Natural Resource, LSU AgCenter, Baton Rouge, La.

(This article appeared in the summer 2005 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)

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