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There's no symbol of childhood more enduring than the playground. Put a sandbox next to a swing set, add a slide and some kids, and what emerges is a portrait of pure joy. Indeed, whether they're in our backyards, at the park, or behind the school, playgrounds are a vital refuge from the world outside. Yet sometimes there can be less safety in these havens than meets the eye.
Unlike the playgrounds baby boomers grew up with, today's playgrounds delight children with a modern mix of materials and equipment. While the majority of these changes are welcome, some don't play well with others. Environmental and children's health advocates say there are a few trouble spots that parents should know about. Here's a look at the hazards and the solutions:
RUBBER MATS AND TIRE "CRUMB"
Increasing numbers of playgrounds are using mats and/or loose pellets made from recycled tires to create shock-absorbing surfaces. Tests conducted by the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment show that these materials release some 49 different compounds as they age or are exposed to heat and/or sunlight. These include volatile organic compounds and heavy metals.
Untreated, pesticide-free wood chips and mulch are a safer, healthier alternative. The Consumer Product Safety Commission recommends using at least nine inches of material for equipment up to seven feet high. For equipment up to five feet high, a nine-inch layer of sand or pea gravel can be used instead. This surface should extend at least six feet in all directions from play equipment. Surfacing for swings should extend twice the height of the swing set front and back.
TREATED WOOD EQUIPMENT
In order to resist moisture, playground equipment is often made from lumber treated with chromated copper arsenate (CCA), a form of arsenic. Though CCA is forced deep into treated wood under high pressure, it can leach out over time.
New playground equipment should be made from wood treated with arsenic-free preservatives or crafted from untreated, naturally rot-resistant woods like cedar or redwood certified to have been harvested responsibly. Other options include wood/plastic composite building materials or equipment made from recycled plastic. If you dismantle any existing wood structures or equipment, treat it as hazardous waste— until recently some 98% of all outdoor wood products contained arsenic. Don't cut, burn, or reuse it, or leave it lying on the grass or in the garage for any period of time.
If you can't replace wooden equipment, experts recommend a yearly application of water-based sealant or a latex paint to trap the CCA inside. You can also replace selective portions of existing equipment, for example rungs and hand-holds, that see a lot of contact.
Many brands of play sand are not natural sand but rather are manufactured from ground quartz. This material can be contaminated by crystalline silica and traces of the mineral tremolite, a type of asbestos. While some of these hazardous products may bear a warning required in California declaring that the product contains materials known to cause cancer, birth defects and reproductive harm, consumers outside California can't count on such labeling.
Avoid commercial play sands that don't specifically state they're toxin-free. Instead, look for natural river or beach sand at gardening stores. Or use silica- and tremolite-free play sand.
Unbeknownst to most parents, many playgrounds receive regular applications of pesticides that expose children playing there to potent toxins.
A healthier strategy is integrated pest management (IPM), which seeks to control pests rather than eradicate them and uses a combination of mechanical and physical means, biological controls, and behavioral changes to keep populations low. At a minimum, parents should insist on posted warning notices that tell playground users when pesticides were used and what products were applied.
These and other healthy changes are clearly easier to make in one's own backyard than in city parks and at local schools and daycare centers. But even in facilities outside our control, parents armed with the facts can make a critical difference. Together we can make the places our children play safe for this generation and all those to come.