Today is National Healthy Schools Day!

For National Healthy Schools Day, schools should tackle a huge public health issue: removing lead contamination. Lead contamination in schools, sadly, comes from a variety of sources: water, paint, and — surprisingly — playgrounds. School, park, and community playgrounds may present a potential source of lead poisoning for young schoolchildren. Playgrounds present several lead hazards: 1) exposure to lead-based paint from playground equipment, 2) lead in the type of turf used in some playgrounds, and 3) lead deposited in the soil near playgrounds. According to the CDC, there is no safe amount of lead that children can ingest. Lead exposure can cause learning disabilities, hearing difficulties, behavior problems, and actually impact a child’s IQ. No kid should be exposed to lead.

Lead paint in playground equipment

As any parent or teacher knows, young kids will frequently eat, lick, and touch every inch of a playground. So decreasing lead levels in school playgrounds is vitally important. Because of weathering and time, lead paint on playground equipment (especially outdoors) can deteriorate into chips and dust that contain lead. Kids ingest lead paint chips and dust by putting their hands on the equipment then placing their hands in their mouths. The 1992 Residential Lead-Based Paint Hazard Reduction Act banned most leaded paint. However, even if leaded paint is not used today, playground equipment has typically been repainted numerous times and contains multiple layers of paint. It is possible that some of the older paint layers contain lead. As the painted surface deteriorates, children may be exposed to the deeper, older layers of possible lead containing paint.

This is not an isolated issue: when the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission did a random sampling of paint from playgrounds in 13 cities, they found that 11 cities had playground equipment above lead hazard control measures. Schools can and often will do something about this: school officials and playground maintenance managers can test the playground equipment to determine if lead-based paint is present. A lead hazard assessment for playground equipment should include a visual inspection, paint testing, and coming up with a solution to remove the paint from the playground. Parents can ask if officials have done an assessment on their equipment.

Lead on the field: the crumby problem of crumb rubber

One place where scientists find lead is in a place you probably don’t expect: the playing field. Crumb rubber is the infill used on top of synthetic athletic fields as a cushioning agent between the green blades of plastic grass. Currently, it is the most widely used of the available infills.

Crumb rubber is the common name for a recycled mixture that is made by shredding used tires from cars and trucks. The widespread use of crumb rubber on turf fields began in the 90s. People realized it was cheap to grind up piles of used tires, and crumb rubber’s use took off, with about 12,000 fields nationwide, each field containing between 20,000–40,000 old tires.

Crumb rubber is a synthetic mix of dangerous chemicals designed to be used as tires for cars and trucks; tires were never designed to be played on by children.

As a recycled product, crumb rubber’s use is unregulated, therefore no one is overseeing its safety. One major problem with crumb rubber is that it can contain lead. In New York City, officials found over 10 parks that contained detectable levels of lead in the crumb rubber, including one park that had levels higher than federal guidelines. Scientists in other states have found similar levels of lead in playgrounds.

Crumb rubber can contain many other chemicals (once again — this stuff used to be tires sourced from landfills). There is a growing number of athletes, particularly soccer goalies, who suspect a connection between their cancer and a childhood played on crumb rubber turf. While crumb rubber advocates claim the fields are safe, the potential health effects of exposure to lead are too great to risk it. Montgomery County MD, NYC Parks and Rec, and L.A. School District, all have bans or other limitations on the use of crumb rubber, and other communities and states are considering similar actions. Parents can ask school officials what infill is used in the playground, and demand that schools and school districts avoid using crumb rubber.

Lead in playground soil: the lurking threat

Recently, scientists have noticed a trend: children’s blood lead levels tend to go up in warmer months, when kids are outside playing, when kids are digging up soil in the playground, and when lead is kicked up from the soil. Lead may get into soil from such sources as leaded fuel in cars, lead-based paint chipping off old buildings, and incinerators. Lead may be lurking in the playground soil for several decades without schools or parents knowing about it.

So what can be done? School districts in cities like New Orleans have tested soils and, in playgrounds where the soil contains a dangerous amount of lead, have removed the lead contamination. Parents and teachers should advocate for soil testing in playgrounds, particularly in areas close to industrial centers. Initial test kits can be relatively inexpensive, and are a good way for schools to get started on ensuring that their playgrounds are safe.

Steps for the future

There are a lot of potential lead hazards in playgrounds. Parents and schools can and should be proactive in finding out if there are potential sources of lead contamination in the equipment and soil on school playgrounds.

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Public Health