Featured Presentation by Diana Zuckerman at the CDC Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program Annual Meeting

Atlanta, Georgia

December 5, 2023

Thank you for the opportunity to be here today.  I’m so glad to be invited to talk about a source of lead that doesn’t get much attention: lead in children’s playground surfaces, artificial turf, rubber floor tiles, and rubber mulch used on the lawns in homes and other properties across the country.  Most is from materials made from recycled tires, but not always.

I’m Dr. Diana Zuckerman and I’m president of the National Center for Health Research.  Our nonprofit research center and think tank is staffed by scientists, medical professionals, and public health experts. We conduct and explain research that can improve the health and safety of adults and children. We do not accept funding from companies whose products we evaluate, so we have no conflicts of interest.

Artificial turf and rubber tiles, mulch, and rubber playground surfaces contain lead, PFAS and other risky chemicals. Crumb rubber from recycled tires is a major source of lead in these products. When we look at the beautiful rubber playground surfaces, such as the one pictured here, they look very inviting.  They feel spongy and that seems especially safe when small children fall.  But when the playground surfaces have lead, we need to think about how many children are exposed day after day, week after week, and year after year. This is especially true for playgrounds used daily by daycare centers and elementary schools.

Does “virgin rubber” contain lead? We don’t know how virginal “virgin rubber” is, so we can’t answer that question. We know that some playgrounds are covered with recycled tire mulch and some with “virgin rubber.” They vary in color. None are tested for lead before they are sold.

Poured in Place (PIP) is a very popular type of surface for playgrounds, and consists of what looks like a solid rubber surface, but underneath the surface is recycled tire mulch. Sometimes the top surface may be virgin rubber, but sometimes it is also made of recycled tire mulch.  Testing has shown lead dust on the surface, as well as other heavy metals, most recently by researchers at Georgetown Medical Center.

Don’t be fooled by how they look when they are new

These photos show what happens to these very attractive rubber surfaces after a few years.  The rubbersurfaces deteriorate, especially where children are most active. Some examples are at the foot of a slide, where children land when they go down the slide.  But the top layer also wears off in other areas where children play or when the top layer cracks due to the weather. The black you see is recycled tire mulch.  I’m not sure what the gray color on the ground is – probably the tire mulch washed away and left the hard surface underneath.

What’s below the rubber surface? Recycled tire mulch can be on the top layer of a playground surface or just below the top PIP (poured in place) solid layer.  You can see that in these close-up photos.  The surface on the left is made of pieces of rubber of different colors, whereas the top layer surface on the right looks orange from a distance but is actually from pieces of rubber that are yellow and red.  But look at what is under the surface.  The black is recycled rubber mulch. It looks a bit like licorice.  You can also see some color pieces of rubber that are mixed in with the black.  That looks like candy.  And small children like to play with it, and put it in their mouths.

When lead dust is found on the surface of playgrounds, officials often try to solve the problem by  power washing  the dust off the surface.  But where does the lead dust go when it is washed away?  The lead goes onto the dirt and sometimes into streams and ground water.  And of course, new lead dust will form on the surface after the previous dust is washed off.

From the ground into the air

Whether we’re talking about playgrounds or artificial turf fields, children and athletes breathe in the lead, chemicals, and particulate matter when they play. And small children eat pieces.

The plastic grass that makes up artificial turf often contains lead. In addition, many turf fields use recycled tire crumb for infill – whether they are NFL fields, college fields, or your local school field.  In fact, if you happened to see the recent  game between Ohio State and University of Michigan, you could see the black pieces of artificial turf flying around the feet of the players during the game.  And even the plastic grass field, which is green, showed black areas where the tire crumb infill was very visible.

In a study of aerosolized particulate matter from artificial turf, a University of Georgia faculty member found particulate matter that contained arsenic, cadmium, chromium, and lead.1

This photo of a new playground in Maryland shows the surface is made of recycled tire crumb that was dyed green.  Given the chances of tire pieces containing lead ending up in children’s clothes, on their hands, and in their mouths, this is probably the most unsafe playground possible. No tests on human health were conducted prior to this product getting on the market.   Fortunately, several of us were invited by families in that community to speak at their town forum, and I’m glad to say that all these playground surfaces were replaced with a safe alternative called engineered wood fiber.

Protecting our children

As you know, several U.S. government agencies restrict lead, some phthalates, and other hormone-disrupting chemicals from numerous other children’s products. Agencies are starting to restrict PFAS. But these substances are not restricted in artificial turf, rubber tiles, mulch, or playgrounds.

Here’s a sign that the D.C. government put up at artificial turf fields using recycled tire mulchas an infill.  It’s in English and Spanish.  If only toddlers could read!

Although I’m focusing on lead today, I couldn’t resist mentioning another problem with artificial turf and children’s rubber playground surfaces.  They get very hot!  You can see from this photo that on a warm and sunny day, when the air and grass were about 90 degrees, the artificial turf and playground were 180 degrees!  That is unusually hot, but I’ve frequently measured temperatures of 150 or 160 degrees, which is also dangerously hot.

Where does tire mulch infill go when it rains? Or when they can no longer be used?

In this photo, a heavy rain caused the recycled tire infill to wash off the artificial turf field onto other play areas nearby.  I’m glad to say that the father who took this photo got his kids off the tire crumb right after the photo was taken.  But this gives you an idea of how much tire mulch infill there is, and it has to go somewhere.  And it can’t be recycled, and in many cases it eventually gets into streams and ground water.  And by the way, when the infill washes off like this, the entire artificial turf field has to be replaced.  They can’t just replace the infill that has washed off.  Since these fields cost about $2 million dollars, this is a very expensive problem, because the fields don’t last 10 years as is often promised.

The companies claim that the old synthetic turf and tire crumb are recycled.  But as you can see, it often ends up in a dumpster, and from there to a landfill. They still contain lead and toxic chemicals.  Most of the components of the turf and playground surfaces can’t be recycled, and we have not seen any evidence that any of the components are actually recycled.

What are the alternatives?

Most people assume that artificial turf doesn’t need to be watered, but actually the warranties require that they must be regularly watered.  Otherwise, fields get very dirty and can harbor bacteria.

What about pesticides?  Many assume that artificial turf doesn’t need pesticides, but actually many such fields are treated with pesticides when they are being made, before they are installed. Think of it like wall-to-wall carpeting, which looks like one enormous piece of carpet but is actually made up of many smaller pieces that are sewn together.  To prevent weeds from destroying the artificial turf, pesticides are needed to prevent weeds from growing along the seams of the carpet.

Engineered wood fiber, which is what is shown in this photo, feels as spongy as rubber when installed correctly on playgrounds and has no lead or any other dangerous chemicals. It does not cause splinters, even though it is wood.  And it is ADA compliant.

And of course, the alternative to rubber mulch around plants is the natural wood mulch that is used around shrubs, flowers, and other plants.  And yet rubber mulch is increasingly popular at stores like Home Depot.

In this photo, you can see floor tiles made of recycled rubber, which are also widely available at Home Depot and other stores. They are proudly described as recycled rubber and therefore environmentally friendly, but if you want to find out that they are made of recycled tires you need to check the manufacturers’ websites to find that information.  I don’t mean to pick on Home Depot – I mention it because most of you probably have a Home Depot store in your community. We are especially concerned about these tiles when used in daycare centers, playrooms, exercise rooms, or basements, because those rooms may have no windows or windows that are not usually opened.

I’d be glad to answer any questions.


1. Shalat, S.L. (2011). An Evaluation of Potential Exposures to Lead and Other Metals as the Result of Aerosolized Particulate Matter from Artificial Turf Playing Fields, Final Report. Submitted to NJ Department of Environmental Protection, July 14, 2011. https://www.nj.gov/dep/dsr/publications/artificial-turf-report.pdf