Richard Jerome
August 12, 2002 12:00 PM

As 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 her—specifically her husband, 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 while he sawed it,” says Milam. “Breathing it, absorbing it in my skin.”

Industry officials defend their product, often used for decks and playground equipment. “The Milams’ case is without merit,” says Parker Brugge, president and CEO of the American Wood Preservers Institute, which is also named in the suit, noting that the couple used only a small amount of CCA-treated wood. “The safety of pressure-treated wood is supported and endorsed by the scientific and medical communities.” But the Milams’ litigation is just one of dozens of CCA-related suits filed since the late ’80s, most involving people working with the wood. Driven in part by such pressure, the $4 billion industry announced a voluntary agreement with the EPA in February to phase out CCA by the end of 2003. In a statement, the agency stressed that it saw “no reason to replace CCA-treated structures in homes or on playgrounds,” but that “any reduction in…potential exposure to arsenic is desirable.”

To critics, however, the danger is far from past. “The sale of treated wood should stop immediately,” says Jay Feldman, executive director of Beyond Pesticides, an advocacy group. “People will continue to get sick.” Others worry that existing structures laced with CCA can do harm. “Children using playsets can absorb it through splinters,” says attorney David McCrea, 59, who has represented half a dozen CCA plaintiffs. “People with decks may find arsenic leaching into their soil.”

The debate is fueled by uncertainty about what constitutes a safe level of arsenic exposure. Doctors say that depends on the individual, the rate of exposure and other variables. But once a person is poisoned, the only treatment is chelation, in which drugs flush toxic substances from the body. “The side effects are nausea and malaise, similar to chemotherapy,” says Dr. Nasir Haque, 41, chief of staff 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 Tom. “They suggested treated lumber.” (In a statement, Home Depot says it complies “with EPA’s recommended procedures for notifying customers” who buy CCA-treated wood.)

The wood arrived in April 1999. By early May Lynn began vomiting. She would go to the hospital, seemingly recover, then return within days. Haque lay awake nights pondering her case. Then it occurred to him to test her for poisoning. “I doubt she would have lived another six months,” he says. The inquiry ground on for nearly a year until an FBI agent, who had read an article on the subject, thought of the arsenic-laced lumber. The bureau did not definitively establish wood as the culprit but said that was the likelihood given the timing of the Milams’ symptoms. “I’m just real thankful,” Hernando District Attorney John Champion says of the couple, “that they’re doing good now.”

That’s arguable. Their savings depleted, Tom and Lynn still live in the trailer they’d planned to use until moving into their dream house, which stands nearby, abandoned and incomplete. Once avid swimmers and rafters, they’re exhausted by their medical and emotional ordeal. “Our life at this point is basically sitting under the shade trees,” says Lynn. “The joy has just gone out of it.”

Richard Jerome

Bob Stewart in Hernando

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