Ariel Wittenberg, E&E News: July 8, 2022
When Diana Zuckerman was growing up, there was dirt underneath the slides. Her children played on playgrounds placed atop sand and mulch. But, today, when she drives around her Bethesda, Md., neighborhood, Zuckerman sees [many] rubber playgrounds.
The sight concerns Zuckerman, because as president for the National Center for Health Research she has testified in front of multiple municipal and even state governments about the toxic chemicals that can lurk in rubber playground surfaces.
The chemicals can include neurotoxins like lead and other heavy metals, as well as carcinogenic chemicals like polyaromatic hydrocarbons, endocrine-disrupting chemicals like phthalates, and chemicals linked to other organ damage like volatile organic compounds and PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances.
“All these rubber surfaces, they can be very pretty, and when you know nothing, you think it’s great because if my child fell on it, it is so spongy and pretty and safe,” she said. “But we actually don’t believe that it’s safe from the chemical exposure perspective.”
Concerns about modern playground surfaces were first raised decades ago, when recycled tire crumb rubber became a popular playground surface. The recycled tires often contained lead and other heavy metals, and public health experts were especially concerned that using the bite-sized material on playgrounds could unnecessarily expose small children, particularly toddlers, who are prone to putting objects in their mouths.
Nowadays, many municipalities searching for new playground surfaces know enough to stay away from tire crumb rubber.
But many continue to install what’s called “pour in place” rubber, flat, spongy rubber surfaces that can contain other chemicals of concern, like polyaromatic hydrocarbons, phthalates, and volatile organic compounds. Those more solid rubber surfaces can also contain additives and binders that could harm the health of children, though the exact chemicals vary by manufacturer.
Artificial turf, long-popular on athletic fields, has also been marketed as a playground surface. Some PFAS are used to manufacture the plastic grass blades (Greenwire, Dec. 8, 2021).
Sarah Evans, an assistant professor of environmental medicine and public health at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, says those poured in place rubber playgrounds still pose exposure risks to kids. Children could pick up chemicals on their hands as they play and then accidentally ingest them when they eat meals or snacks at the playground.
“We are very concerned about that,” she said. “And we don’t have a good handle of what is in those products.”
Indeed, the exact risks rubberized playgrounds pose to children are unknown, in part because the federal government’s efforts to investigate the issue have been stalled by both the Trump administration and the coronavirus pandemic.
In 2016 EPA completed a report looking specifically at tire crumb rubber playgrounds meant only to explain the best ways to test such surfaces for chemicals. A second report meant to characterize potential human exposure to tire crumb rubber has never been released.
In the absence of federal action, industry has continued to say that all playground surfacing options are safe.
Evans, at Mount Sinai, said she also hears from parents who are concerned that their cities and towns have already installed rubber playgrounds.
Playing outside, even on a rubber playground, can be very important for kids’ development. So, rather than eschew the playground altogether, Evans recommends that parents be extra vigilant if their children play on rubberized surfaces and make sure hands are washed before children eat or as soon as they get home. Kids who play on crumb rubber should shake out their clothes and change when they come home.
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