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Avoiding Toxic Timber Treatments for Human Health

Avoiding Toxic Timber Treatments for Human Health

The Poisonous Truth About Treated Wood

I’ll admit it – I’ve always had a love affair with wood. The rich, earthy scent, the smooth texture, the endless creative possibilities. As a lifelong woodworker, I’ve spent countless hours surrounded by the stuff, crafting everything from cozy cabins to intricate furniture. But recently, I’ve grown increasingly concerned about the hidden dangers lurking in much of the treated timber we use every day.

You see, many of the chemical preservatives used to protect wood from rot, insects, and other threats are downright toxic. We’re talking about substances like chromium, copper, arsenic, and creosote – the kind of stuff you really don’t want anywhere near your family. And yet, these hazardous treatments have been the industry standard for decades.

It’s enough to make a guy like me, who’s passionate about natural, sustainable building materials, want to throw up his hands and swear off treated wood entirely. But the truth is, it’s not always that simple. Treated timber is still widely used in all sorts of crucial applications, from decking and fencing to utility poles and marine pilings. Avoiding it completely isn’t always a viable option.

So what’s a health-conscious woodworker to do? As it turns out, there are some better, safer alternatives out there – if you know where to look. Let’s dive in and explore the toxic truth about treated timber, and uncover the eco-friendly solutions that could transform the way we build.

The Nasty Chemicals Hiding in Your Wood

When it comes to wood preservation, the industry has relied on a few key chemical culprits for decades. The “big three” are chromated copper arsenate (CCA), creosote, and pentachlorophenol (PCP) – all of which have some seriously troubling health and environmental implications.

Let’s start with CCA. This wood preservative, which was the predominant choice for residential and commercial applications from the 1970s to the early 2000s, contains a potent combination of chromium, copper, and arsenic. According to the EPA, these heavy-duty chemicals are highly effective at protecting wood from fungi, insects, and marine borers. But they also happen to be extremely hazardous to human health.

Arsenic, for instance, is a known carcinogen that’s been linked to a host of other serious issues, including reproductive problems, neurological damage, and skin lesions. Chromium and copper, while less overtly toxic, can still pose risks of their own. Chromium is associated with respiratory issues and skin irritation, while copper exposure has been tied to liver and kidney damage.

Then there’s creosote, a thick, oily preservative derived from coal tar. The EPA describes it as a “restricted use” product that’s used primarily for commercial applications like railroad ties and utility poles. But creosote is no less concerning from a health perspective – it’s a known human carcinogen that can also cause skin irritation, breathing problems, and nervous system effects.

And finally, we have PCP, which the EPA reports was one of the most widely used biocides in the US before its residential uses were phased out in the 1980s. This chlorinated compound is a persistent environmental pollutant that’s been linked to liver and kidney damage, as well as reproductive and developmental issues.

The common thread here is that these wood preservatives, while effective at their job, carry some seriously unsavory baggage. Exposure can happen through skin contact, inhalation, or even ingestion – and the potential health consequences range from annoying to downright deadly. Not exactly the kind of thing you want lurking in your backyard deck or garden shed, is it?

Safer Alternatives to Toxic Timber Treatments

So if the old standby wood preservatives are so problematic, what’s a health-conscious builder to do? Thankfully, there are some better, eco-friendlier options out there. Let’s take a look at a few of the top choices:

Alkaline Copper Quaternary (ACQ): This water-based preservative relies on a combination of copper oxide and quaternary ammonium compounds to protect against fungi and insects. According to the EPA, ACQ has a relatively low toxicity profile compared to the old standbys, and it leaves wood with a clean, paintable surface after treatment.

Copper Azole: Another water-based wood preserver, copper azole uses copper as its main active ingredient to fend off fungal decay and insect damage. The EPA says it’s widely used across the US and Canada, and it too leaves behind a nice, clean finish.

Borates: These mineral salts, which include compounds like disodium octaborate tetrahydrate (DOT), are particularly effective at protecting wood from mold, fungi, and wood-boring insects. The EPA notes that borate-treated wood is commonly used for interior applications like framing, sheathing, and trusses.

Natural Oils: Plant-derived preservatives like copper naphthenate and polymeric betaine offer an even more eco-friendly alternative. These oils and esters can be used to treat wood for above-ground, ground contact, and even some aquatic applications.

The best part? Many of these safer options are already widely available and used in the timber industry today. In fact, the EPA reports that ACQ is currently the most commonly used wood preservative for residential applications.

So if you’re in the market for some new treated lumber – whether it’s for a backyard deck, a fence, or a custom woodworking project – be sure to do your research and look for these healthier, greener alternatives. Your family (and the planet) will thank you.

Making the Switch to Safer Wood

Of course, transitioning away from toxic timber treatments isn’t always as simple as it sounds. After all, the construction and woodworking industries have been relying on those old standbys for decades. And many consumers still expect (and demand) the green-tinted, CCA-treated lumber that was the norm for so long.

But the tide is starting to turn. As more people become aware of the health and environmental risks associated with those hazardous wood preservatives, the demand for safer, more sustainable options is steadily growing. And savvy builders and DIYers are taking note.

Take my own experience, for instance. A few years back, I decided to revamp the deck on my family’s cabin up in the Rockies. As I browsed the lumber yard, I was dismayed to see row after row of the classic CCA-treated pine – the kind I’d been using for projects my whole life. But then I spotted some gleaming, honey-colored boards labeled as “ACQ-treated.” Curious, I did a little research and quickly realized this was the safer, eco-friendlier alternative I’d been looking for.

Sure, the ACQ-treated lumber cost a bit more upfront. But knowing that I was protecting my family (and the local environment) from those nasty chemicals? To me, it was more than worth it. The final product turned out beautifully, and I’ve been singing the praises of ACQ and other non-toxic wood preservatives ever since.

And I’m not alone. More and more contractors, DIYers, and sustainability-minded consumers are making the switch, driving demand for these healthier timber products. Even big-box hardware stores are starting to catch on, prominently featuring their selection of non-toxic, borate-treated lumber and other eco-friendly options.

Of course, the old, toxic treatments aren’t going away anytime soon. They’re still widely available, and plenty of folks out there remain loyal to the familiar green-tinted wood they grew up with. But I’m hopeful that as awareness grows, and safer alternatives become more mainstream, we’ll see a real sea change in the timber industry.

Because at the end of the day, the health of our families and our planet has to come first. No beautifully crafted deck or fence is worth exposing ourselves and our loved ones to those nasty chemicals. It’s time to ditch the toxins and embrace a new era of eco-friendly, people-first timber treatments. Who’s with me?

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