EPA reevaluating the use of recycled tires in playgrounds

Potential health risks raise concern

By Rita Beamish
Associated Press / June 5, 2009
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SAN FRANCISCO - For years, the Environmental Protection Agency has endorsed the recycling of ground-up tires to cushion the surfaces of children's playgrounds and sports fields - the same material used for the Obama family's new White House playground.

Now, the agency is having second thoughts.

EPA scientists are worried they don't have enough information about potential health risks from chemicals in the rubber material, which is popular because it decreases playground injuries and is low maintenance and weatherproof.

The concerns are disclosed in internal agency documents about a study the EPA is conducting of air and surface samples at four fields and playgrounds that use recycled tires. The study was prompted by other research suggesting potential hazards from repeated exposure to bits of shredded tire that can contain carcinogens and other chemicals, according to the documents.

The EPA scientists cited gaps in scientific evidence, despite other reviews showing little or no health concern. They urged their superiors to conduct a broad health study to inform parents on kids' safety.

Results from the agency's limited study, which began last year, are expected within weeks.

"From everything I've been able to see, I'm not sure there's an imminent hazard but it's something we're investigating," said Michael Firestone, EPA's head of children's health protection.

The government has not decided if broader testing is necessary.

Communities from New Jersey to Oregon have raised concerns about children touching, swallowing or inhaling lead, metals, and chemicals like benzene, zinc, and breathable particles from synthetic fields and play yards.

Last week, New York state officials said they found no significant health or environmental concerns in a study of leaching and breathable air above sports fields with so-called tire crumb - tiny rubber infill pellets that help anchor the synthetic grass blades. Other local studies have reached similar conclusions, examining artificial grass or tire crumb. Several have recommended more research.

Scrap tire mulch cushions the ground under the play set that President Obama's daughters use at the White House. It was recommended by the National Recreation and Park Association, which relies on the industry's safety assurances and recommendations by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, said Richard Dolesh, public policy officer for the park association.

But New York City officials say their new sports fields will no longer use tire crumbs. Connecticut asked the EPA to study the matter shortly after EPA's Denver regional office recommended the same.

The EPA memo was sent to Washington from the Denver office in January 2008, saying that until more was known, the EPA should take a neutral stance instead of sanctioning recycled tires for play areas.

Along with its own research, the agency will consider studies in New Jersey, California, Connecticut, and New York to determine whether more testing is needed. A shortcoming of EPA's study is the small number of locations examined, according to the documents.

The Synthetic Turf Council, an advocacy trade group, says laboratory-based claims of toxicity don't reflect actual conditions.

"The science is clear that synthetic turf crumb rubber infill fields do not present a human health or environmental risk," said Rick Doyle, president of the group.

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