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  • Getting arsenic out of your garden

    Maleea Acker

    Allan Galambos’ fight against CCA treated wood products.


    IN 2016, PROFESSIONAL ENGINEER Allan Galambos and his wife moved to Cordova Bay to enjoy retirement. His wife was hoping to garden but the back yard had a significant ash pile. Rather than mixing the ash into the ground, they made the decision to gather it for disposal and test a sample. It was a good thing they did. The testing revealed an extremely high level of arsenic—344 parts per million (ppm), nearly 14 times the allowable level for livestock grazing in BC—and high levels of chromium and copper. One tablespoon of the ash would have killed a person; 5 tablespoons a cow. 

    The ash was a result of burning chromated copper arsenate (CCA) treated garden posts; the water-soluble inorganic pesticide is used to make posts more rot resistant, as it repels both fungi and bugs. You have probably seen CCA treated wood—it has a distinctive green stain and pressure treatment marks. And you might remember when it was removed from use in playground construction, in the early 2000s. Over 4 million CCA treated posts are still produced each year in BC. The International Journal of Women’s Dermatology links skin cancer in the USA to CCA treated wood. 

    Galambos found a disposal company to remove the ash and several tonnes of soil, as Hartland Landfill wouldn’t take it. Leachability for the ash was shown to be 4.13ppm, almost twice the landfill’s limit. 

    Thousands of dollars later, Galambos had a new retirement project: figure out why this poison-laced wood was still being sold, unlabelled, at hardware stores around the region in 2020.



    Treated fence posts and ties read for sale at a local supply outlet


    The issue has turned out to be an all-consuming bureaucratic tangle for Galambos. But now, residents also have an opportunity to weigh in on the sale and regulation of the posts. The Canadian Standards Association Group has opened a public review on wood preservation. 

    “What really worries me is that these ties are the perfect size for building raised beds,” Galambos told me when we met for tea on my back deck last fall. They are especially tempting because they often cost less than a less toxic post (treated with copper azole), they last longer without decaying, and they’re not individually tagged with a warning label. The two types are often sold side-by-side. “The residential lumber industry now requires copper azole treated lumber to be labelled with an end tag,” says Galambos, but “nothing like that has evolved for wood treated with CCA.” I have four posts in my garden, holding up my raspberry canes and supporting an aging pear tree. Fortunately, they’re not the green ones; but they easily could have been.



    Allan Galambos poses in front of arsenic-treated garden posts at a local supplier’s yard


    In 2003, the wood treating industry agreed worldwide with authorities, including Canada, to voluntarily withdraw CCA treatment of residential lumber, but would continue to treat wood for industrial use (utility polls, bridge beams) and for agricultural purposes (where the posts are used in fencing or staking). The sale of the posts is supposed to be restricted, but a government game of “pass the buck” has meant that the posts occupy a limbo zone that leaves residents at risk of buying and handling these pesticides without knowledge. Burning, touching or cutting these posts without using personal protective equipment can mean inhalation or absorption of arsenic. Poisoning results in skin swelling and lesions, abdominal pain, cramping, tingling, and increased risk of cancer.

    Galambos reached out to various levels of government in 2018 to get clarification on the regulation and labelling of CCA treated posts. He shared the responses he received with me. Through his correspondence with the Federal Minister of Environment and the Minister of Health, and the BC Provincial Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy, Galambos discovered that though regulations for use are in place, sale and labelling regulations are not preventing local hardware stores from offering the posts; neither are they mandating labelling. The Minister of Health argues that “most residential uses of CCA treated wood were voluntarily withdrawn in 2003 by North American CCA producers.” But as Galambos discovered, this doesn’t mean it still isn’t being sold to residents.

    Galambos toured hardware stores around the region last summer; he found green posts at most stores, including Buckerfields, Slegg Building Materials, Integrity Sales, Russell Nursery, and Rona. In some cases, they were side by side with end-labelled Copper Azole treated brown lumber, which is significantly less dangerous to health but costs more. If you didn’t know the history or dangers of CCA, wouldn’t you choose the cheaper wood product? 

    Another problem is that the CCA posts aren’t labelled. In 2018, the Federal Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) responded to another letter from Galambos saying that “there is no requirement…to afix a pesticide label to the [CCA] treated lumber” because the wood is only sold for agricultural use. 

    The Federal Minister of Health wrote that “CCA-treated wood must not be burned, except in authorized disposal facilities,” but wood products “are specifically excluded from…the Federal Hazardous Products Act,” which would mandate their labelling as toxic. 

    The Provincial Ministry of Climate Change Strategy also passed on the issue, writing that “labelling inquiries concerning the protection of workers, are managed by the Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System, under the Federal Hazardous Products Act and Regulations.”

    After Galambos found the CCA posts in local lumber supply stores, he sent letters to all of them, copying the PMRA, explaining the loophole and lack of labelling and asking them to voluntarily stop stocking the posts, since their residential use couldn’t be guaranteed. As of last fall, two stores had changed their practices: Slegg Building Materials and Buckerfields both put signage in place (a stapled tag on one out of 100 posts) identifying CCA treated wood products and advising customers on how to handle them.



    Warning to would-be customers of treated posts


    Galambos was also worried about the protection of workers who might be handling the posts without gloves, which he discovered is a WorkSafeBC responsibility. But WorkSafeBC, when Galambos contacted them, passed the responsibility for protection of workers on to the employer. The Federal Pest Management Regulatory Agency is in charge of inspections to make sure CCA treated products are being handled properly. When Galambos wrote to them asking for findings of noncompliance, there was no response. Various regulatory bodies seemed to be pointing the finger at one another, while Wood Preservation Canada (WPC) quietly kept producing and selling the posts. 

    When Galambos wrote a post on the issue on the Canadian Standards Association Communities page, WPC contacted him. “They called me, saying ‘I will handle this offline with you. Let’s talk, but stop writing,’” says Galambos.

    In 2019, Green Party MP Elizabeth May wrote to the Minister of Health on behalf of Galambos. She outlined his concerns and urged the immediate requirement that all agricultural posts treated with CCA be labelled. She also made a call to restrict the sale of the posts, while aiming toward a stop in production. Minister Petitpas responded, writing “CCA treated wood is not generally available at lumber yards that serve the general public.”

    When I phoned around this February, Slegg, Buckerfield and Rona said they no longer carried any green posts, but a visit in person tells a different story. Slegg, Integrity and Buckerfields all had green posts available in the yard. One post in the pile had an arsenic warning label. Online, Rona lists the CCA posts as “round posts”; their ends have been sawn flat, making them perfect for garden bed planters or retaining walls. There is no mention of the posts’ toxicity on their website.

    Has Galambos’ persistence scared distributors into at least identifying the arsenic content? “I’ve talked to the Saanich Environment Committee, to the City of Victoria, and I’d like to get a resolution to the Union of BC Municipalities,” Galambos tells me. Back in the fall, he rued that “the only way might be to tackle the individual stores and post negative informative reviews online for each green post sold.” This seemingly endless process of whack-a-mole may have increased labelling, but it has not prevented the sale of the posts. Meanwhile, the government bodies continue to refer Galambos to one another.

    Until February 18, anyone can write in support of more stringent regulations for CCA treated wood. Email your comments to Kat Crew, Project Manager for the Canadian Standards Association, which is currently reviewing standards for treated wood. Here, you can voice your support for the removal of CCA treated posts from any residential lumber stores. In the meantime, we have Galambos and his wife to thank for choosing not to till that ash into their backyard soil. 

    Kat Crew, Project Manager with the CSA, can be reached at kat.crew@csagroup.org. Galambos recommends also copying the Federal Minister of Health, Patty Hajdu at hcminister.ministresc@canada.ca. 

    Maleea Acker is the author of Gardens Aflame: Garry Oak Meadows of BC’s South Coast, which just entered its second printing. She is still a PhD student. She’s also a lecturer in Geography, Canadian Studies, and Literature, at UVic and Camosun.

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    I have used that wood many times for fences and garden beds over the years because I didn’t know and it was cheap. Probably burnt the cuttings in my previous fireplace or outside. Right now I look out my window and see it in the fences surrounding the townhouse complex I live in so it is in my backyard. I have watched workers repair those fences by cutting new posts without gloves or masks. They would be exposed. The wood is fine if handled and disposed of correctly and NOT used near vegetables where the arsenic could leach into the food via the soil. Touching it can also cause rashes and maybe cancers. But without proper warnings and labels I for one didn’t know that! Better not to sell to general public at all and eliminate the risk. 
    I have asked some commercial and agricultural business people I have met whether they know about the dangers of CCA wood and everyone I asked in those industries did know. BUT they also admitted their workers usually didn’t wear protective gear. Correct disposal seems to be iffy as well. 
    I encourage your readers to take a few minutes to email as suggested. Even if the deadline for the CSA review has passed. It is that important. 
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