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Parents Concerned About Arsenic Levels In Playground Equipment

Oct 16, 2002 | Royal Oak Daily Tribune Mary Cutshall rolled up her sleeves this fall to help build the playground at the John F. Kennedy School where her only son attends the open classroom program.

But when Cutshall read a warning label on wood being installed as a border, she became alarmed. The sticker cautioned that the wood was treated with inorganic arsenic, a known carcinogen that can cause severe illness and even death.

"The warning label tells you if you touch the wood or sit on it or anything like that, you should wash your hands immediately and your clothes should be washed separately," Cutshall said. "It's scary to me."

She and her mother, Virginia Bunnell, are concerned that children who come in contact with the wood may be at risk of arsenic exposure, and other individuals apparently share their worry.

After a Royal Oak parent brought similar concerns to light, that district tested all its wooden equipment and ripped out playscapes at Northwood, Oak Ridge, Upton and Parker elementaries after inorganic arsenic was found. The district plans to remove and replace sandboxes as well. The projects will cost about $100,000 by the time they are complete, even though there is no conclusive proof arsenic-treated wood poses a risk to children.

"We have taken the position that we are going to remove all that stuff from the district," said Andy Linell, executive director of Royal Oak Schools' business affairs. "We're not in a position to evaluate what relative level is a safe level."

Arsenic is a naturally occurring element widely distributed in the earth's crust. It occurs naturally in soil and water, and only is harmful to humans when inhaled or ingested. It accumulates in the body over time, and in large quantities, can increase risks of cancer of serious illness, and cause seizures or nerve damage.

Inorganic arsenic is found in chromated copper arsenate, a common wood preservative that protects docks, decks and other outdoor structures from pests.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will outlaw CCA by December, 2003, but until then it will remain in use.

It has been around for decades, according to Fundamental Playscapes of Ann Arbor, the company Ferndale hired to put in the new playground equipment at Kennedy.

According to the company's president, Johnathan Dreyfuss, the arsenic scare arose in Florida last year, and is completely unfounded.

"What happened was somebody in Florida discovered that the CCA process had leached out of some play structures and CNN went to cover it," Dreyfuss said. "All the playgrounds were open a week later but CNN in their fashion didn't go out to report that. Every media outlet covered the story and somebody made the grand assumption it was dangerous for children to play on these things."

In reaction to the hysteria, the Florida Department of Health appointed a panel of six doctors to study the chemical.

After a year, the Florida Physicians Arsenic Workgroup came to the conclusion the amount of arsenic that can be absorbed from playground soil and CCA-treated wood "is not significant compared to natural sources and will not result in detectable arsenic intake," according to the group's report.

Still, Dreyfuss said he is glad to see the use of CCA ending, for the sake of people who work with the material on a daily basis. Sawing, burning or manufacturing the wood can release arsenic into the air, he said, and the warning labels that alarmed Cutshall are meant for them.

"I researched this stuff pretty intently. I can't find anything that indicates that children are at any realistic risk particularly from this application, but I am also very much in favor that this material is going to be phased out of production and they've found another suitable material that won't put carpenters at risk," Dreyfuss said.

According to Ferndale Superintendent Gary Meier, the district will continue to investigate the situation.

"At this point although we'll continue to review the concern that's been expressed, we haven't found any clinical research or any other information that would suggest kids walking over these timbers to get to the playground equipment would be hazardous," Meier said.

Even Royal Oak is leaving similar wood landscape dividers in place because children do not come into much contact with the wood, although Linell said the dividers will be capped with another material to seal in the CCA.

Bunnell hopes something is done at Kennedy.

"The wood might be within the limit of legality, but not safety," Bunnell said. "We're very concerned about this because the children do sit on the barriers while they're out there. It gets on their clothes, get on their hands and they take it home to smaller children."

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