Dr. Diana Zuckerman, PH.D, Kingston Wire, October 23, 2023
When I first saw rubber playground surfaces under swings, slides, and children’s climbing equipment, I was impressed. They seemed very attractive and safe for active young children. I was wrong. As a scientist I learned that children all over the country are being exposed to unsafe chemicals without their parents’ knowledge or consent. That’s why I recently wrote to Kingston’s mayor, superintendent of schools, members of the Board of Education, and numerous principals to share scientific information about the lead and dangerous chemicals in artificial turf and playground surfaces, hoping it will help them make the right decisions about what is best for Kingston’s children. I want to share that information with you.
As president of the National Center for Health Research, I have testified about these products to local, state and federal agencies and legislators and met with parents and community leaders from coast to coast. Our nonprofit think tank includes scientists, physicians and health experts who conduct studies and scrutinize research conducted by others. We explain scientific and medical information that can be used to improve policies, programs, services and products.
What’s in those rubber playground surfaces?
In recent years, scientists have learned about the lead, cadmium, PFAS, and other chemicals that are in the rubber playground surfaces called PIP (Poured in Place) and recycled tire mulch (also called recycled rubber, since that sounds even more environmentally friendly). We now know that the rubber pieces made from recycled tires contain lead and heavy metals, as well as chemicals that increase the chances of developing obesity; early puberty; attention problems such as ADHD; exacerbate asthma; and eventually cause cancer. Although I’m focusing on playground surfaces, recycled rubber is also used as “infill” for many artificial turf fields and also the rubber mulch sold for your lawn at Home Depot and many other stores. (The plastic grass that makes up artificial turf also has dangerous levels of lead, PFAS, and other toxic chemicals.)
Pediatricians tell us that no level of lead exposure is safe. The solid rubber surface used on playgrounds looks safe, but whether or not the top is made from recycled tires, underneath is recycled tire crumb that causes lead dust on top of the surface. Children breathe that lead dust as they play. And, after a few months or years, the solid rubber surface wears off or cracks, revealing small pieces of recycled tires that young children (like those at George Washington Elementary School’s Children’s House) may be tempted to put in their mouths, exposing them to even more lead. Blood lead levels for Kingston residents are already higher than in most communities. That makes it especially essential to avoid additional exposures.
The PFAS in tire mulch are also dangerous because they enter the body and the environment as “forever chemicals.” PFAS are not metabolized and won’t deteriorate, accumulating over the years. PFAS can cause liver damage and other serious health problems. That’s why Governor Kathy Hochul signed a law this year banning PFAS from clothing and carpeting (they are used to make them stain resistant), including the plastic grass carpet used in artificial turf fields, such as the one at Dietz Stadium. Unfortunately, PFAS is not banned from rubber playgrounds, such as PIP.
There are also environmental risks from these materials. They retain heat, so that on a warm sunny day when the temperature above the grass is 85 degrees, it is often over 150 degrees for anyone on PIP and artificial turf fields. And, during heavy rains, the tire mulch washes off, contaminating nearby areas and your water supply.
Evidence of Harm vs. Evidence of Safety
Scientists at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (which is part of NIH) have concluded that unlike most other chemicals, hormone-disrupting chemicals (found in tire mulch and artificial turf) can be dangerous at very low levels, and also when they combine with other exposures in our environment. That is why the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has banned these chemicals from toys, pacifiers, teething toys and other products used by young children.
Companies that sell and install artificial turf and rubber playground surfaces often claim that there is “no evidence children are harmed” or that their products cause cancer. This is often misunderstood as meaning the products are safe or are proven to not cause harm. Neither is true.
It is true that there is no clear evidence that an artificial turf field has caused specific children to develop cancer. However, that statement is misleading because it is virtually impossible to prove any chemical exposure causes one specific individual to develop cancer.
As an epidemiologist, I can tell you that for many years there was no evidence that smoking or 9/11 exposures caused cancer. It took many years to develop that evidence, and the same will be true for products made from recycled tires.
We know that these materials contain carcinogens. When children are exposed to those carcinogens day after day, week after week, and year after year, it increases the chances of our children developing cancer, either in the next few years or later as adults. That should be adequate reason not to install them in your community.
What Should Kingston Do?
There have never been any safety tests required prior to sale that prove that any of these products are safe for children who play on them regularly. In many cases, the materials used are not publicly disclosed, making independent research difficult to conduct. None of these products are proven to be as safe as engineered wood fiber or natural grass in well-constructed fields.
Officials in communities all over the country have been misled by salespeople and scientists hired to lobby them to purchase these fields and playgrounds. They were erroneously told that these products are safe. In fact, there is clear scientific evidence that these materials are harmful. How much exposure is likely to be harmful to which children? Do you want to take that risk with your children? Don’t our children deserve better?
I am not paid to write this or speak up on this issue. I do so because I care about the health of my family and yours.
This oped is posted on the Kingston Wire website at https://kingstonwire.com/opinions/2023/10/23/opinion-are-pip-rubber-playgrounds-safe-for-kingston/361KUj and you can read a pdf version of the article here.