Pressure-Treated Wood

Dear NH,
We had a builder finish our basement and he used pressure-treated wood during the framing process anyplace where the frame hit the basement floor. On your site, you mentioned that pressure-treated wood should not be used indoors. Is this safe?
TR from Burlington, MA

Pressure-treated wood (PTW) using arsenic-based preservatives (CCA) is not supposed to be used in living spaces, so technically he shouldn't have used that product in your home. In some circumstances, it has been used atop foundations, but only if approved by the local building code.

Everything I have read leads me to believe that arsenic will not migrate into the air in your basement. It is also generally accepted that the most risk from PT wood is in the construction phase, where fine arsenic-laced saw dust is easily inhaled or comes in contact with the skin.

Actually, the logic of using PTW in a "finished" basement is flawed and I find it amazing that so many contractors use it. The only purpose of the preservative is to prevent rot and insect infestation. If there is enough moisture leaking into your basement to rot wood, it stands to reason that wallboard, paneling, furniture, carpeting and other items will become moldy and smelly over time, too!

Moisture abatement must be accomplished before any basement renovation. This includes elimination of active water leaks and a combination of wall coatings, floor coatings and heavy plastic sheeting to slow the migration of water from the outside to the inside. Sometimes, repairs outside the home are helpful, such as re-grading, exterior foundation repair or even something as simple as cleaning the gutters or redirecting downspouts. Below-grade basements typically have a little extra moisture than the rest of the home, regardless of the amount of preparation. The trick is to control it as much as possible and use mechanical dehumidification as seasonally necessary.

Frankly, if a basement has severe moisture problems and the cost of proper repair is too high, renovating may lead to a smelly and unhealthy environment. I have been in enough mildewy basements over the years to have strong feelings on this issue. When I tell people that the only way to remove the odors is to completely tear out all existing framing, walls and carpets and throw away the furniture, I am met with stunned silence, anger or both. Anger not directed at me, of course, but at the former owner who didn't do his homework!

Perhaps you didn't know, but sale of arsenic-based PTW for residential use will be banned through voluntary agreement with the PT industry after Dec 31, 2003. Fortunately, there are alternative products that will be arriving at your lumberyard soon, if not already. Here is a link to the information on the EPA website.

Of course, the alternatives may or may not be banned years from now as they are more widely used. (It's happened before!) We'll have to wait and see.

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