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Safety of Playgrounds
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Safety of Playgrounds
There was a discussion about arsenic (or some other poison)
that was found in older wooden playground structures a while
ago. I couldn't find it, so could you all give me the low-down
on it. Is it a real danger, or a rumor? Are there particular
parks to avoid or ways to tell what is safe and what isn't?
There's an organization called the Safe Playground Project that
is focused on just this issue. I think their website is still
rudimentary, but should have the basic info (and contact info).
The address is www.safe2play.org.
I cannot speak about any specific play structures, but have read
a bit on pressure-treated lumber. Until recently, all pressure
treated wood has been treated with CCA (chromated copper
arsenate), which will release arsenic when rubbed, cut, abraded,
etc. So in addition to concerns about playing on the structure
itself, the soil/sand beneath a CCA-treated play structure (or
deck) may be contaminated. I believe it is being phased out.
According to the EPA web site: ''February 12, 2002, the EPA
announced a voluntary decision by the industry to discontinue the
consumer uses of CCA. The discontinued uses include dimensional
lumber and wood used in play structures, decks, picnic tables,
landscaping timbers, residential fencing, patios, and
walkways/boardwalks. Dimension or dimensional ! lumber is defined
as lumber that is from 2'' up to, but not including, 5'' thick, and
that is 2'' or more in width. Dimension also is classified as
framing, joists, planks, and rafters.'' After 2003, stores could
sell existing stock (for residential use), but are not getting
CCA-treated wood is being replaced with new types of
pressure-treated wood that do not contain any arsenic. They still
look very much the same - regular indentations where the chemical
was forced in under pressure, and a greenish tinge (from copper
component). ACQ lumber is treated with alkaline copper
quaternary, and CBA uses copper boron azole.(The structure
mentioned in the last few newletters may have used one of these
new, non-arsenic, pressure-treated materials.)
Hard to say whether these will be found to be harmful in the
future, but at least they don't contain arsenic. The scraps are
not considered hazardous waste. Note that if you build with ACQ
or CA lumber, you have to use stainless steel (preferrred) or
hot-dip galvanized (acceptable) hardware - screws, nails, etc. -
because the high copper content will corrode standard hardware.
I'm trying to make sense of a news story I just read about the
EPA finding that kids who are exposed to treated wood (like on
playground equipment)are at elevated risk of some cancers. How
serious a risk is this?
The way to make sense of all such statistics is to find out what the base rate
of risk is. For example, if a story says that kids exposes to such- and-such
are at 10% higher risk for disease X, and the normal risk of the disease is
.01% (meaning ten kids out of every 100,000 get it), then the risk for kids
exposed to such-and-such is .011% (meaning 11 kids out of every 100,000 get
it). Ten percent increased risk looks like a big deal, and in one way it is
-- but if the base rate is small to begin with (as is the case with most
cancer in children), it doesn't mean that huge numbers of children will get
I think the risk is quite serious, and it concerns me greatly. The pressurized
woods are treated with arsenic (a heavy metal) to make them weather resistant.
However, when it rains, arsenic leaches out of the wood, into the surrounding
ground and whatever touches it. Arsenic is extremely carcinogenic. It's
appalling, and it's EVERYWHERE! There are lumber yards where the workers
refuse to handle the stuff, because of it's toxicity (my father is a
contractor, that's how I know). I would do everything I could to avoid having
my children around that stuff. Next year, it will finally be illegal to sell
it, but that doesn't address all the pressurized wood that is currently in
use! No treated wood, please!
Just last week the EPA released its draft risk assessment
addressing this very issue, that is, of playground equipment
(wooden) treated with chromated copper arsenate or CCA. It has
found that indeed, children who play on CCA treated equipment do
face an increased risk of cancer primarily related to the
presence of arsenic. This coincides with the CPSC's recent risk
assessment that found the same thing. It does depend of course
on various factors, and I would urge you to go to the EPA's
website to read the draft risk assessment. It is very long, but
you can read the executive summary. I work for the SF Parks dept.
and have been very involved recently in evaluation of all of our
playgrounds for the presence of arsenic so that we can ensure the
structures are adequately sealed (which does afford some
protection, but how much is unknown; there are longer term plans
to remove such structures as money becomes available).
I would recommend talking to your local park dept. to see what
they are doing about it. Also, if you don't know if the structure
you are playing on contains CCA then asssume it does. Then be
sure to wash children's hands with water/soap after playing on
it, and definitely before they eat anything. Hand to mouth
contact is the primary route of exposure here.
An aside; children who also are exposed to CCA-treated decks at
home increase thier risk, and kids who live in warm climates have
an increased risk due to being outside more. So the answer to
your question is yes, there appears to be an increased risk of
cancer, but there are things you as a parent can do about it
until such time as our cities can afford to replace all CCA
If memory serves, I believe the City of Berkeley replaced all
the treated wood in its playgrounds at great expense some
years ago, because of these same concerns. Probably other
cities and school playgrounds have done the same. If you want
to confirm this, you could check with your city's recreation
department. Here is the web site for Berkeley's:
(This is a great website by the way - there is a list and
map of all the parks with very detailed information about
each one, also new and ongoing projects, etc.)
this page was last updated: Feb 22, 2008
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