If you're getting ready to build a deck, you'll find a growing number of materials from which to choose as arsenic pressure-treated lumber is phased out this year. Options include a host of composite, wood-like alternatives made from the likes of grocery bags, milk jugs, other recycled material, as well as new arsenic-free treated lumber.

Last year the Environmental Protection Agency and the wood preservative industry agreed to phase out arsenic-tainted lumber, known as chromated copper arsenate, which has been used for decks, picnic tables, gazebos, and playground structures since the 1940s. The arsenic substance wards off termites and prevents rot and decay.

This transition affects virtually all residential uses of wood treated with CCA, including wood used in decks. By January 2004, the EPA will not allow CCA products.

Why the ban?

In the EPA's own words, "EPA has not concluded that CCA-treated wood poses any unreasonable risk to the public or the environment. Nevertheless, arsenic is a known human carcinogen and, thus, the Agency believes that any reduction in the levels of potential exposure to arsenic is desirable."

Home improvement guru Bob Vila says three wood-preservative manufacturers - Arch Wood Protection, Chemical Specialties, and Osmose - have been working on CCA alternatives.

"These new-generation products are just as effective as the CCA-products," Mel Pine of the American Wood Preservers Institute, says in an article on Vila's web site. "They have been subjected to the same testing as CCA-treated wood, and all contain registered pesticides."

Pine says little will change for the consumer in terms of product and availability. "To the average do-it-yourselfer, nothing has really changed," he says. "He [still] goes to the retailer and buys treated wood. For all intents and purposes, most people won't notice the difference."

But the Western Wood Preservers Institute says that while treaters are beginning to use the new products, most say they will be making the switch at the end of the year, just before the new rules kick in.

Retailers also appear to be holding out until the end of the year, too, the industry group says in a summer 2003 newsletter.

"Because of the slightly higher cost of the new products and the stellar performance by CCA over the years, retailers seem to be waiting until the end of the year before they switch their inventories entirely," the newsletter says.

Meanwhile, Vila says the new alternatives will cost 15 to 70 percent more than CCA-treated wood. But the price should drop once CCA is banned in January, say wood suppliers.

The EPA says it does not believe there is any reason to remove or replace CCA-treated structures, including decks or playground equipment. Also, it is not recommending that existing structures or surrounding soils be removed or replaced.

An alternative to using pressure-treated lumber is synthetic composites, which perform especially well under intense heat, hold their shape, don't splinter, and can last for decades with little maintenance.

The "plastic wood" alternatives offer durability and comfort with no risk of slipping or splinters, are economical, available in a wide variety of colors and patterns, and made of recycled materials.

Jay Webb, a contractor in Sacramento, Calif., says these alternatives are a great decking choice.

"As a contractor, I always try to present the best options to my clients, and as soon as I present the benefits, they are ready to go with composites," said Webb.

Some of the composites on the market include:

  • Plastic lumber, which is made of recycled milk jugs and grocery bags, does not absorb moisture. It costs about $2.10 to $3.25 per square foot.
  • Vinyl lumber, which costs $2.40 to $3.10 per square foot, should have Ultra Violet inhibitors impregnated directly into the vinyl and not sprayed on after production.
  • Wood-polymer lumbers, which contain up to a 50:50 ratio of waste wood and recycled plastics, look and feel like wood but never require maintenance. It will run you between $1.75 and $3.25 for a square foot.
  • Rubber lumber, composed of 50 percent plastic and 50 percent old tires, is tough, durable, and impervious to water, insects, and UV rays. A square foot will cost you about $2.30.
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