A child growing up in a lead-free home develops a lead level that’s “almost of concern,” and it turns out this two year old plays in tire mulch that contains lead. Young goalies who played on fields filled with crumb rubber develop alarming cancer rates. Lands under former tire dumps get treated as brownfields.
So why are we letting children play on rubber tire mulch and crumb rubber-filled fields? Park boards would answer, “because there’s so much demand and these fields hold up to more continuous use” compared to grass. Indeed, many were funded by well-intentioned folks trying to make up for decades of inequities, in neighborhoods where there are many poor people and people of color.
Play It Safe, a group of parents and other community members who’ve researched what other states and countries are doing, are advocating for measures to stop the use of these substances and substitute engineered wood fiber, which can also be an even less expensive alternative. They’ve adopted a “Precautionary Principle” that says you don’t have to wait for absolute scientific proof before changing something that appears harmful.
We call on readers to join them in calling, writing, and educating lawmakers at every level, to help them to stand up to industry lobbyists and take the actions necessary. Those lobbies (Synthetic Turf Council members, to name a few) were strong when, starting in the 1980s, someone had to come up with a way to deal with tires that stank, bred mosquitos, and polluted the land under them. Thousands of cities, parks, and schools nationwide were sold on the resulting recycled tire products as “premium.”
Speaker Diana Kennedy, at a session in Northeast on Feb. 28, told how one by one, the regulatory agencies that blindly bought into the use of these products have now backed away. She said cities are starting to take out and put back to grass (with deep roots this time), various areas that had acted as urban heat islands, rubber fields among them.
Shawn FitzGerald, a Northeast resident at one time, was one of the earliest leaders in getting kids off crumb rubber. She measured temperatures at local fields and found the black mulch 50 percent higher than grass.
A fellow from Edina, where six new rubber-derived fields were recently put in over community objection, told the Feb. 28 group, “They didn’t do analysis of maintenance. They think it’s maintenance-free. It’s not.” The product lasts about nine years, loses its resilience, and – same as natural materials – needs to be replenished because – guess why? The stuff washes away (to pollute our rivers and lakes) and walks away in the form of dust and particles on kids’ clothing and in their hair.
Kids play in different ways than adults might – “they explore with their whole body,” Kennedy pointed out. They are also more susceptible to toxins as their systems are still developing. Apparently schools are so tightly programmed now, they don’t have time to have kids wash their hands after recess, but rather use hand sanitizers – which just hastens how chemicals absorb through their skin.
For years, those who called rubber mulch “safe” did so because for many substances, there was no measure of what was considered harmful. Kennedy’s group is particularly concerned about the accumulative effect — these same children have been exposed to harmful chemicals that leach from plastics, air pollution, and other toxins. (See our online article on Green Zones.)
So they’re starting with the Minneapolis Public Schools, targeting the 47 of 66 school playgrounds where these products are in use. A preliminary figure of $1.2 million would be needed to replace the materials with the recommended engineered wood fiber (a virgin product made from the scraps produced in furniture and window-making). About equal or more expense would be in providing appropriate drainage and curbing to keep the material contained and allow it to dry after rains. Kennedy said they met with Superintendent Ed Graff, who will direct staff to gather the numbers.
There’s a measure at the Minneapolis City Council passed out of committee recently, to be decided March 10, calling for a moratorium on city funding participation in any project that uses crumb rubber and to encourage other public bodies to do the same. There’s a bill at the legislature calling for mandatory signage at park sites instructing about brushing off clothes, covering drinks, washing hands, etc. The biggest offender – and Play It Safe says appears the least interested – is the park board, and the group encouraged making this issue a litmus test (our words) on support for candidates.
Call your elected officials at all levels with your thoughts. For more information, Like the Facebook page Play It Safe Minneapolis.