Another Hazardous Rulemaking

This week, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) denied the marketing of yet another wood preservative, meaning consumers will continue to have few choices when it comes to buying wood products for decking, fences, and other outdoor structures. Wood preservatives are the chemicals used to make pressure treated lumber—lumber that is resistant to insects and decay.

The ostensive reason for prohibiting the product—acid copper chromate or ACC—was to prevent consumers from suffering allergy-related skin irritations and reduce potential cancer risks for workers. Yet ACC has been used safely for decades. It was once one of the most widely used chemicals for residential uses, and it is still used in industrial applications. The same cannot be said about the alternative products that began wide use in 2004, and which pose serious other problems for consumers (see below).

This decision reflects the increasing use of the federal pesticide law for anti-competitive uses. CEI documented in 2003 how a handful of companies helped remove another product from the market called chromated copper arsenate (CCA). Environmental groups helped as well by making specious claims about risks from trace levels of arsenic in the wood. After CCA was removed from the market, the firms making alternative products , who had worked to get ACC off the market, petitioned EPA for a registration. These firms (just two now) hold the only registrations for competing products—ACQ (alkaline copper quaternary) and CA (copper azole).

Consumers will be the ones who suffer from limited competition. CEI pointed out in 2003, that the alternative products have some serious drawbacks: They are more corrosive to screws, nails, and other fasteners. The manufacturers of the new preservatives claimed that using special galvanized fasteners or stainless steel products solved the corrosion problem. But firms in the fastener industry apparently were not so clear about how the chemical would impact their products. As ACQ showed up in Home Depot, Lowes and other consumer lumber yards in 2004, the fastener industry was still testing their products and redesigning some with the hopes of averting safety problems.

A 2004 article in a trade magazine called The Merchant detailed some of their concerns. Senco, an Ohio firm that makes fasteners, commissioned the University of Dayton to study this issue. “It’s very early in that process to report anything conclusively, but the preliminary results are alarming, to say the least … Even galvanized fasteners are showing signs of corrosion in a very short period of time,” Bryan Wright of the company told The Merchant. One company decided to only sell stainless steel fasteners for use with ACQ.

“This is the only proven solution for the uncertainty,” William Wade, a FastenTite company representative reported to The Merchant. “No one is quite certain what effect [the chemical changeover] will have on coated steel fasteners … To address this issue, some companies are modifying their existing coatings or simply marketing existing coatings as compatible with the new pressure treatments. The question that lumber dealers and builders should ask is whether they’re willing to take that chance to save a few cents,” he continued.

Deciding which fasteners to use is still pretty complicated. Stainless steel screws and fasteners are the best, but they are expensive and often hard to find. One company offers some advice in an information sheet, appropriately titled “Critical Information,” which is available at Home Depot. But it is doubtful that most residential customers will read it before buying their decking fasteners. At one point it notes, “Many of the new, alternative Pressure-Treated Woods use chemicals that are corrosive to steel … Because of the many variables involved Simson Strong-Tie cannot provide estimates of service life of connectors, anchors or fasteners.” You can get more details on their website.

One can only wonder how many consumers have already used the wrong products for decks and other structures and how many of those will eventually become safety hazards.