Keep kids safe. Test wooden decking and yard equipment for arsenic.

Time: 
Morning

For decades nearly all outdoor wooden structures—play sets, picnic tables, fences, decks—were made with "pressure-treated" wood injected with chromated copper arsenate (CCA). This insecticide and preservative is 22 percent pure arsenic, a known carcinogen that can also cause nerve damage. CCA may keep wood from rotting, but the arsenic can leach from the wood onto kids’ hands and into the soil below. Making matters worse, this arsenic leaching doesn't decrease with time. Structures 15 years old release just as much arsenic as newer ones.

With studies showing that soil from 40 percent of U.S. backyards and parks exceeded the EPA's Superfund levels for hazardous waste cleanup, manufacturers agreed to halt production of CCA-treated wood for home use and playgrounds beginning in 2004, though they were allowed to sell existing stock.

If your home play set, outdoor wood furniture or decking is five or more years old, test it for arsenic. Test kits for wood and soil are $20 each from the Environmental Working Group. Test during dry weather because rain can wash surface arsenic away.

If the tests indicate there is leaching, the safest step is to replace all CCA-treated wood as well as the top few inches of soil or wood chips under and around it. If full replacement isn't practical, at least replace wood where there is high traffic, like railings and steps. The rest should be sealed with a solid or semitransparent deck stain. AFM Safecoat recommends low-VOC Durostain with low-VOC Safecoat Watershield (www.afmsafecoat.com). If you have young kids or pets, keep them away from treated wood, and don’t let them play under decks until you have had the soil replaced. Don't eat food off any treated surface, and don’t store toys under the deck.

When shopping for new outdoor wood furniture or decking, ask retailers for proof that what you are buying is CCA-free. Look for naturally rot-resistant wood (Forest Stewardship Council–certified cedar and redwood are good choices), wood composites, recycled plastics or less toxic pressure-treated lumber. To learn more about FSC certification as well as other claims, check out Label Lookup, which compares various labels, explains what they mean, and tells you which you can trust.

If you end up replacing all or part of the CCA-treated wood from your yard, handle it like hazardous waste and call your sanitation department to ask how to properly dispose of it. Never burn it, and avoid sawing it or sanding it. Inhaling arsenic dust or gas is worse than swallowing it and can cause acute poisoning. Contain any demolition dust with a tarp.