“There’s a growing debate about the safety of the recycled rubber chips used to cushion falls on many children’s playgrounds.” writes USA Today
The Environmental Protection Agency has endorsed rubber play surfaces since 1991, both to protect children from head injuries and prevent tires from ending up in landfills, where they can catch fire or become breeding grounds for mosquitoes.
Yet EPA officials say they can’t vouch for the safety of recycled rubber, which can be contaminated with lead and other toxins, according to internal documents released under the Freedom of Information Act to the advocacy group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, or PEER.
“Children’s chronic, repeated exposure to tire crumb could present health hazards,” wrote the EPA’s Stephen Tuber in a January 2008 memo. “Yet there are insufficient data to assess the full spectrum of those risks.”
Some of the greatest concerns have involved the recycled rubber used in synthetic playing fields. New York and New Jersey last year closed half a dozen such fields because of high lead levels.
The EPA is conducting a pilot study to decide whether to launch a larger, more comprehensive study of the risks, spokesman Dale Kemery says.
Meanwhile, the EPA should stop promoting recycled rubber as an eco-friendly choice, says PEER’s executive director, Jeff Ruch. He says the EPA should also issue a public health advisory about recycled rubber’s risks.
Rubber manufacturers take this issue seriously, says Rick Doyle, president of the Synthetic Turf Council. The industry is meeting the strict new requirements for lead in children’s toys from the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, which took effect in February. Doyle says parents can be reassured by the findings of recent studies from New York and California, both of which found little risk to kids.
And rubber chips, despite the potential risks, can offer real advantages in preventing injuries, says David Mooney, a pediatric trauma surgeon at Children’s Hospital Boston. A 1997 Lancet study found that playgrounds with rubber surfaces had the lowest rate of injury, with half the risk of bark mulch and a fifth the risk of concrete.
Playground injuries send 200,000 kids to the emergency room each year, says Chrissy Cianflone of Safe Kids USA. About 15 children die from playground injuries each year.
Mary Jean Brown of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it can be tough to find a pristine surface for playgrounds. Even garden soil can be contaminated with lead, thanks to decades-old deposits from car exhaust, she says.
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By Liz Szabo, USA TODAY
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