On a recent visit to a new playground, I was alarmed to see that shredded tire mulch had been chosen as ground cover. For years the public, media and government leaders nationwide have expressed concern that this mulch may put our children’s health at risk. Beginning in 2016 there has been a multi-agency effort, which includes the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), to each study the potential hazards to human health of exposure to chemicals in recycled tires.
The CPSC, which regulates playground safety, states on its website that their study’s purpose is “to improve the understanding of potential health effects of recreational exposures to recycled tires. The CPSC is studying exposures of children to playground surfaces derived from recycled tires. Ultimately, the CPSC intends to initiate a nationwide survey to acquire representative exposure data, and in turn, inform future research in the associated hazards.”
In view of these ongoing studies, many communities around the country have not only suspended use of this material, but are also taking proactive actions to remove and dispose of this waste.
The CPSC website goes on to say:
“We recognize that communities, parents and state and local officials are concerned about recycled tire materials used in playground surfacing. The study’s findings will provide a better understanding of potential exposures children may experience by using playgrounds with recycled tire surfacing. While this short-term study won’t provide all the answers, the information will help answer some of the key questions that have been raised.”
Further, the CPSC goes on to issue these warnings to communities who use tire mulch:
“While no specific chemical hazards from recycled tires in playground surfacing are known by the CPSC at this time, the following precautions to limit exposure are recommended:
• “Avoid mouth contact with playground surfacing materials, including mouthing, chewing, or swallowing playground rubber. This may pose a choking hazard, regardless of chemical exposure.
• “Avoid eating food or drinking beverages while directly on playground surfaces, and wash hands before handling food.
• “Limit the time at a playground on extremely hot days.
• “Clean hands and other areas of exposed skin after visiting the playground, and consider changing clothes if evidence of tire materials (e.g., black marks or dust) is visible on fabrics.
• “Clean any toys that were used on a playground after the visit.”
The CPSC studies are focusing exclusively on human safety. They don’t address the additional dangers to fish, wildlife, the aquifer and the unsightly scattering of rubber particles, through foot traffic, well beyond the confines of the play area. According to Washington State University Extension Fact Sheet FS163E, tires contain rubber and chemicals, which are broken down by microbes over time. “Decomposition of rubber means that breakdown products, including heavy metals and other chemicals of concern, leach into the surrounding soil and water.”
No doubt children’s safety was the aim when local officials and community members chose recycled shredded tire mulch as a landing surface for our children’s falls. Yet the long-term health of our children should be paramount. Let’s rethink our options and not expose our children to unnecessary risks until the facts are known.
• Barbara Shepherd has a master’s degree from Harvard University in City and Regional Planning. She worked as an Environmental Specialist with the State Department of Environmental Conservation for nearly 15 years.