RI* Home Sick
August12,21AQ 1eI.58 No./
Critics say arsenic-treated wood is often sold without handling instructions.
s she lay deathly ill in a Memphis hospital three years ago, Lynn Milam felt like she was living an Alfred Hitchcock film. It was the sixth time in eight months she'd been hospitalized for severe vomiting and diarrhea. Baffled at first, her doctor finally arrived at a chilling diagnosis: Milam was suffering from arsenic poisoning, with 100 times the normal amount of the substance in her blood. The police were sure someone was trying to kill herâ€”specifically her hus-
Lynn Milam was being poisoned. Cops suspected her husband. Then they found a likelier culprit: her new house
band, Tom, 46, who used herbicides with trace levels of arsenic on the couple's 76 acres in Hernando, Miss. Yet there was no clear motive, and the Milams had recently joined in a labor of love, building a log cabin on their property. "I told them Tom may get mad, but it's only going to last maybe two minutes," says Lynn, 50, a computer programmer. "He doesn't have it in him to make me suffer this way." Then Tom, too, began experiencing symptoms, and tests revealed even
more arsenic in his system than in Lynn's. A savvy FBI investigator fingered an unlikely suspect: the nation's leading wood preservative, chromated copper arsenate (CCA), which had been used to treat lumber in the Milams' dream house. On Aug. 31, 2001, the Milams filed suit against nine companies that treated or sold the wood, claiming they failed to warn of its dangers or supply EPA-recommended handling instructions, such as the use of gloves and a mask. "I held every piece
"If it happened to us it can happen to anybody," says Tom Milam (right, with Lynn outside their unfinished cabin in Hernando, Miss.).
PHOTOGRAPHS BY PATRICK MURPHY-RACEY
• controversy at Methodist Hospital South in Memphis, who diagnosed Lynn Milam. She and Tom have undergone chelation, and, for now, their arsenic levels are normal. Still, says Lynn, "I go to work, come home and lie down." Both divorced, with a grown child each, the Milams were introduced by mutual friends and wed in 1996. Two years later they moved from Memphis to Hernando, 20 miles south, and soon began building their cabin. Contractors assembled the A-frame house, and the Milams worked on the deck and kitchen cabinets. "I went to Home Depot [named in the suit] and told them I didn't want anything to rot," says "A big chunk of our lives has been taken," says Lynn (with Tom in their trailer). Tom. "They suggested treated lumwhile he sawed it," says Milam. through splinters," says attorney ber." (In a statement, Home Depot "Breathing it, absorbing it in my skin." David McCrea, 59, who has repre- says it complies "with EPA's recomIndustry officials defend their prod- sented half a dozen CCA plaintiffs. mended procedures for notifying cusuct, often used for decks and play- "People with decks may find arsenic tomers" who buy CCA-treated wood.) ground equipment. "The Milams' case leaching into their soil." The wood arrived in April 1999. is without merit," says Parker Brugge, The debate is fueled by uncertainty By early May Lynn began vomiting. president and CEO of the American about what constitutes a safe level of She would go to the hospital, seemWood Preservers Institute, which is arsenic exposure. Doctors say that de- ingly recover, then return within days. also named in the suit, noting that the pends on the individual, the rate Hague lay awake nights pondering her couple used only a small amount of of exposure and other variables. But case. Then it occurred to him to test CCA-treated wood. "The safety of once a person is poisoned, the only her for poisoning. "I doubt she would pressure-treated wood is supported and treatment is chelation, in which drugs have lived another six months," he endorsed by the scientific and medical flush toxic substances from the body. says. The inquiry ground on for nearly communities." But the Milams' litiga- "The side effects are nausea and a year until an FBI agent, who had tion is just one of dozens of CCA- malaise, similar to chemotherapy," read an article on the subject, thought related suits filed since the late '80s, says DE Nasir Hague, 41, chief of staff of the arsenic-laced lumber. The bumost involving people working with reau did not definitively establish wood the wood. Driven in part by such presas the culprit but said that was the sure, the $4 billion industry announced likelihood given the timing of the Mila voluntary agreement with the EPA ams' symptoms. "I'm just real thankin February to phase out CCA by the ful," Hernando District Attorney John end of 2003. In a statement, the agency Champion says of the couple, "that stressed that it saw "no reason to rethey're doing good now." place CCA-treated structures in homes That's arguable. Their savings deor on playgrounds," but that "any repleted, Tom and Lynn still live in the duction in . . . potential exposure to trailer they'd planned to use until movarsenic is desirable." ing into their dream house, which To critics, however, the danger is stands nearby, abandoned and infar from past. "The sale of treated complete. Once avid swimmers and wood should stop immediately," says rafters, they're exhausted by their medJay Feldman, executive director of Beical and emotional ordeal. "Our life yond Pesticides, an advocacy group. at this point is basically sitting under "People will continue to get sick." the shade trees," says Lynn. "The joy Others worry that existing structures has just gone out of it." Used on playgrounds, treated wood laced with CCA can do harm. "Chil• Richard Jerome stands up to moisture and termites. dren using playsets can absorb it • Bob Stewart in Hernando 120