Aside from its dramatic appearances in murder mysteries, arsenic may be lurking in your own backyard. In fact, most outdoor wooden structures, such as decks, play sets, and picnic tables are made with pressure-treated lumber that contains an arsenic-based preservative called chromated copper arsenate. High levels of this poison have been linked to various cancers and diabetes, as well as miscarriage and stillbirth. (As of June 1, 2004, new federal regulations will prohibit the use of this lumber, but stores may still sell older sets from their inventory. So even if your furniture is new, it may still contain arsenic.)
Because arsenic may be found on the surface of these items, wash your hands after touching them and cover picnic tables with a plastic cloth before dining. Avoid pressure-washing these products and have them treated each year with a polyurethane sealant to help prevent arsenic exposure.
High levels of arsenic can also be found near some hazardous waste sites and agricultural areas, where older arsenic-based fertilizers may still be in the soil. In some states, high levels of arsenic are found in rock, which can leach into soil and drinking water. Western areas tend to have higher arsenic levels, as do certain parts of the Midwest and New England. If you think you live in an area with arsenic trouble, have your well water tested, drink bottled water, and limit hand contact with soil. Your local public health department can also provide you with further information and testing options.