Children are exposed to toxic arsenic in school playgrounds, despite the fact that the pesticide has been banned from use in play structures since 2003. That's the upsetting news from researchers at Tulane University in New Orleans, who tested 38 playgrounds for arsenic in that city and found it in the soil at 36 percent of them.
Arsenic is a neurotoxin and a carcinogen; neither is something you want anywhere near your child. Because many wooden play structures built before 2003 were treated with the wood preservative known as chromated copper arsenate, or CCA, it's not a big surprise that the ground around those play sets would contain arsenic. The median arsenic concentration in the soil of the contaminated playgrounds studied was 57 parts per million, more than four times the legal level for arsenic in soil in Louisiana. Given that children are active on school playgrounds day in and day out, that exposure is no small deal.
But the risk of arsenic exposure doesn't come just from wooden play sets—the playground with the worst contamination didn't have one. Instead, wood chips made from CCA-treated wood had been spread around equipment to serve as cushioning. The chips contained a whopping 813 to 1,654 ppm of arsenic, according to a report by Janet Raloff of Science News, who covered a presentation on the tests at the annual meeting of the Society for Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry. The Environmental Protection Agency classifies CCA wood chips as hazardous waste. The school did remove the poisoned chips as soon as the researchers notified it. But how many other playgrounds out there might have contaminated chips, too?
Here's the current thinking on how to reduce the risk to your child from CCA-treated play sets:
- Make sure children wash their hands thoroughly anytime they use wooden play equipment.
- Check to see if your play set, deck, or wooden picnic table was built before 2003. If so, it's almost certainly treated with CCA unless it's made of cedar or redwood.
- The EPA doesn't recommend removing CCA-treated play sets. But it does say that applying oil-based penetrating stains on CCA-treated wood may reduce exposure. And there are lots of nonwood choices out there for play sets, decks, and tables if you're shopping for new or used items.
- Contaminated soil in playgrounds may be most easily dealt with by covering it with landscape cloth and clean dirt, according to Howard Mielke, the Tulane researcher who conducted the study.
I had thought that the 2003 ban on using CCA-treated wood in play sets made this worry a thing of the past. Now I know better, thanks to the Tulane researchers and the Science News story. Schools and parks departments should be thinking about where they buy wood chips, at the very least. As will I.