I love the concept of upcycling. I’m typing this post from a much-loved reclaimed wood desk that was born because I spent all my money on high-speed computer equipment, and wood pallets are free and freely available. For a weekend’s worth of work, I got a free desk that supports all the monitors I need it to and that ties together my home with the rustic look. The success of my desk inspired me to take that rustic look outdoors when I resurfaced my deck and replaced its railings with farmhouse style porch railings.
When I built my desk in college, though, there were a lot of things I didn’t know, and wouldn’t have cared about if I did know. Now that I’m older and have friends with children over to my house sometimes, I’ve found things like possible lead and pesticide contamination in old wood matter to me a lot more. I got pretty lucky with my pallet desk. I know the construction site that I got my pallets from shipped coils of wire on them. Generally, with pallets you’re safe as long as they’re not colored—indicating chemical shipment—and they do not have a large MB—standing for methyl bromide—on them. Other types of reclaimed lumber, though, can date from a period when lead paints and DDT were still common ways of treating wood. This is on top of the most obvious disadvantage of paying a premium price. In this post, we’ll talk in detail about why you might want to skip using reclaimed wood for decking, and what you can use in its place.
The Most Common Contaminant? Lead
Lead is possibly the most dangerous, and common, poison out there. It is certainly the most insidious. Lead has been used in paint since ancient times, most famously in white paint, but also in other colors like red and yellow. The hazards have been well known for a very long time, with Medieval texts recording epilepsy, apoplexy, and paralysis among the workers producing lead-based paints. Despite this, lead paint wasn’t banned until 1978. Given how long it was in use, and how hazardous it is, you’re better off assuming that any paint you see on reclaimed wood is lead-based until proven otherwise. You can buy test kits at your local hardware store or online to check for the presence of lead on reclaimed wood. If it returns a positive result, then the material should be disposed of at a licensed disposal site. It is not safe to sand lead paint off, as this turns it into a form that’s easy to accidentally ingest or inhale.
If you think the risks are overstated, consider the case of a Washington teen who was poisoned for over a decade by sleeping with sheepskins that had somehow been contaminated by exposure to lead. It is difficult to overstate how common lead once was and how much of it is still around. Nearly every structure built before 1978 is contaminated by lead paint, and the greatest source of reclaimed wood in bulk is from old barns and factories that are likely host to other chemicals besides lead.
Better Living Through Chemistry Has Consequences
For a very long time, bugs were an inescapable fact of life, and no one could do much about it. Once chemicals were discovered that could kill and drive away bugs, these chemicals were hugely popular and used with little concern for the consequences. A few of the most popular chemicals used for this purpose were:
- DDT: DDT’s toxicity is debatable, and the World Health Organization did reapprove DDT in 2006, what is certain is that it is a very long lasting pesticide. Some soil still contains measurable amounts of DDT thirty years later. Since one of DDT’s uses was treating animal enclosures and homes, it’s reasonable to expect that there are still traces of DDT present in some wood from structures like bards.
- Creosote: Creosote is an old-fashioned way of pressure-treating lumber using the byproducts of burned coal or oil tar. It was mostly used to treat railroad ties in order to prevent rot and keep insects away, and in bridge construction. Since these are hefty pieces of lumber that are frequently replaced, they also tend to be one of the most abundant sources of reclaimed wood, and are often used whole or sawn into smaller boards. Unfortunately, since creosote-treated wood tends to release toxins in the form of gas, the EPA doesn’t approve of its use in any residential role, not even for garden planters.
- Pentachlorophenol (PCP): PCP was another commonly used insect treatment back in the day. Like creosote, it was used to treat railroad ties and utility poles and is still allowed for use in docks and bridges. Like creosote, it also releases chemical compounds into the air. PCP can be absorbed through the skin as well, which is not what you want in a barefoot-friendly deck where small children may be crawling. The disposal of PCP-treated wood must be taken care of through monitored sites, and wood treated with this chemical is not recoverable.
Natural Hazards of Using Reclaimed Wood for Decking
In addition to the manmade hazards we’ve discussed, there are simply the hazards of using old wood, which can be contaminated with mold and mildew and infested with insects. This means that reclaimed wood deck boards could potentially be a vector for bringing mold or insects into your home.
Finally, one of the most plentiful sources of reclaimed wood for decking is old barns that once housed livestock. Because of this, reclaimed boards can harbor bacteria found in feces, like E. coli, deep within the wood. Once again. these are not boards that you would be comfortable stepping on with bare feet or watching a child crawl across.
In the end, you can never know for sure where your reclaimed wood has been and what it has been exposed to. For people like me, anyway, who want to make sure their home is safe for friends and family, this takes reclaimed wood out of the running as a decking material. What can you use instead? Well, there are two reasons that people seek out reclaimed wood for decking: its undeniable history creates a solid, rustic, shabby chic-type look, and no trees were cut to make it. The first isn’t really a good reason to expose your family to lead, chemicals, and bacteria. The second is a noble goal, but there is a better way to achieve it.
Composite decking boards are blends of recycled plastics and wood byproducts like sawdust. Some manufacturers substitute the sawdust for flour made from quick-growing bamboo, but either way, composites make eco-friendly decking that reuses and recycles discarded materials. Composites also involve a lot less maintenance than any wood, be it new, reclaimed, or exotic.
And when you choose composites, you don’t have to sacrifice your desire for a rustic wood look.This type of decking looks more like real wood than ever before, provided it comes from a high-quality manufacturer. Some composites even come in textures and colors designed to simulate the worn, rustic look of reclaimed wood. A good example is Fortress Deck’s Infinity composite boards in Cape Town Grey. The distressed hardwood side of their fully capped boards offers a deeper texture that imitates the look of lumber reclaimed from the elements. That full capping also provides a moisture-resistant barrier to protect the board from damage by the sun, rain, or snow. Fortress Deck is just one of several lines of thoughtfully engineered products from Fortress Building Products, including solutions for deck railings and fencing.