Modern Life: A Cautionary Tale

By Dave Cooper

I have noticed that backyard fire pits have become a trendy item in the cities.  It seems that Americans have finally discovered what the Scouts and WVHC members have known for a long time: There is nothing like the cozy warmth of a campfire on a cool night to stimulate some good conversation.  I love to just sit back and watch the flames: it’s hypnotizing, and the jokes and stories start to flow so easily.  I think fire naturally stirs our primal and ancient memories.   Add a guitar and banjo, wienies on a stick, and some good beverages and you have the perfect setting for a get-together with friends, even smack in the middle of suburbia.

A lot of people are fairly new to making fire, and they don’t know the rules that are taught in Scouting.  Since good firewood can be hard to come by in many suburbs, some people will burn whatever is handy: cardboard or scrap wood, plywood, painted wood and even chemically-treated wood from their old decks.  They probably have no idea how dangerous this practice is.

I found the following interesting post on by Ray Benson of Indiana about burning old deck wood which has been treated with Chromated Copper Arsenate, or CCA:

Incineration of CCA wood does not destroy arsenic. It is incredible, but a single 12 foot 2 x 6 contains about 27 grams of arsenic – enough arsenic to kill 250 adults. Burning CCA wood releases the chemical bond holding arsenic in the wood, and just one tablespoon of ash from a CCA wood fire contains a lethal dose of arsenic. Worse yet, arsenic gives no warning: it does not have a specific taste or odor to warn you of its presence. No one disputes that the ash from burning CCA wood is highly toxic: It is illegal to burn CCA wood in all 50 states. This has serious implications for firefighters, cleanup and landfill operations.
Even more astonishing, minute amounts of ‘fly ash’ from burning CCA pressure treated wood, can have serious health consequences. The Journal of the American Medical Association reported on a family that burned CCA in a wood stove for winter heating. Their hair fell out, all family members suffered severe, recurring nosebleeds, extreme fatigue and debilitating headaches. The parents complained about ‘blacking out’ for periods of several hours, followed by long periods of extreme disorientation. Both children suffered frequent seizures described as ‘grand mal’. The symptoms were finally traced to breathing minute amounts of arsenic-laden dust leaking from the furnace as fly ash. The family’s houseplants and fish died, too, victims of copper poisoning from the same dust.  Source: Peters HA, et al JAMA 251:18, 2393-96, 1984.


So if you have ever wondered whether it is safe to roast marshmallows over a fire containing treated lumber, here is your answer.  Learning about this issue makes me wonder about some other ways that we might be unknowingly exposed to poisons in our daily routines.

For example, I once owned a 1986 VW Jetta that had a small antifreeze leak in the heater box inside the passenger compartment.  There was a very slight, mild smell of antifreeze inside the car.  Antifreeze (ethylene glycol) has a sweet smell, and I stopped noticing it after a while.

My mechanic urged me to get the leak fixed, but replacing the heater core is a $500 repair that involves removing the entire dash, so I put it off for years.  Finally VW issued a recall for this problem and I got it fixed, but only after years of breathing the fumes.  I have since learned just how deadly ethylene glycol is: one third of a cup is a lethal dose for humans.  It has also killed many dogs and cats, who are attracted to its sweet smell.  And every day, backyard mechanics pour used antifreeze down the drain or into the storm sewers, where it goes (eventually) into someone else’s drinking water.

I think that something so deadly should never be sold to the public, or at least it should have a giant skull and crossbones on the front label.   There are less-toxic antifreeze products sold at auto parts stores, such as Sierra antifreeze and Prestone’s LowTox.

Another thing: I often see people microwaving food in random plastic containers who have no idea whether their containers are “microwave safe.”  In small town diners I have been served reheated microwaved food where the Styrofoam plate was melting from the heat of the microwave.  I even saw someone re-heating their coffee in a plastic go-cup.  People are just nuts.

With toxic products so omnipresent in our lives, and with people who vote for representatives and senators who promise “less government regulation,” it’s a real wonder that cancer isn’t even more common than it is!

What’s Dave Cooper Up to Now?

Many will remember Dave Cooper from his days as the force behind the Mountaintop Removal Road Show.  From 2003-2011, he was on a national speaking tour to educate communities across America about mountaintop removal coal mining, speaking over 100 times per year at colleges and universities including Yale, Vanderbilt, and Duke Universities.  With a frugal budget (including some modest and irregular support from the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy) he educated thousands of people about mountaintop removal.

He is the founder of the Whippoorwill Festival in Berea, KY, which offers over 60 earth-friendly and Appalachian skills workshops every summer.  It was featured in the Voice in the July-August, 2012, issue and again in the July, 2015, issue of the Voice.

His most recent venture is Alternative Spring Break.  It hosts groups, mostly from colleges, who want to see Service Learning and More in Harlan, Kentucky.  Instead of conventional break activities, groups can visit Harlan County, learn about the history of mining, and do service projects.