A Times test at the Al Lopez Park playground showed levels the state considers unsafe. The poison comes from treated wood.
By JULIE HAUSERMAN and KATHRYN WEXLER
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 15, 2001
TAMPA -- Parks Department officials have ordered a battery of soil tests this week at Al Lopez Park to measure the amount of arsenic leaching from pressure-treated wood used to build parts of the playground there.
The playground was one of five tested for arsenic levels by Thornton Labs, a company hired six months ago by the St. Petersburg Times. In every case, arsenic levels were higher than the state considers safe, a finding published in Sunday's newspaper.
At Al Lopez, samples of the soil taken 8 inches beneath the surface showed arsenic levels 11.6 times greater than the state's standards for residential soil. As a result, Tampa Parks Director Ross Ferlita said Wednesday, more samples will be taken at different depths and places throughout the playground in the coming days.
"We'll do whatever it takes to stabilize the situation," Ferlita said.
The arsenic comes from chromated copper arsenate, or CCA, a pesticide that's infused into the wood to make it last longer.
Tampa is not the only local government scrambling to figure out what to do.
City officials in Tarpon Springs closed Discovery Playground this week, Crystal River plans to test its Creative Community Playground and New Port Richey will test its playground at Sims Park.
Local officials are faced with contradictory science and little direction from state and federal regulators. Arsenic is leaking out of the wood, but how much risk does it pose to children and adults? Regulators can't say. The wood treatment industry says its own studies show the wood is safe.
Volunteers in Tampa who raised money and arranged to build the Al Lopez Park playground in 1994 were unaware some of the wood used for posts and other parts was treated with arsenic as a preservative against bugs and weather.
"I don't know why the industry hasn't outlawed the use of that material," Ferlita said.
Mark Dummeldinger, who helped raised the $120,000 needed to erect the park, said he had never heard any warnings about the wood.
"All this arsenic discussion was news to me," said Dummeldinger, a statistics professor.
Prompted by inquiries by the Times last year, the Parks Department hired Thornton Labs to run four tests on the playground's soil. The samples were taken at various places and at depths between 6 and 25 inches. Two tests showed acceptable amounts of arsenic, which occurs naturally in low levels in Florida soil.
But Thornton in September also found that in one instance, the amount of arsenic was nearly double that of the state's standards for commercial or industrial sites. And, according to the state's more stringent standards for residential sites, the playground soil flunked two tests.
Ferlita said Wednesday that he was not made aware of any excessive arsenic at the park's Playground Mania. Not all the playground was made with arsenic-treated wood. Other materials, including recycled wood, also were used.
"I thought we were being proactive in September," he said Wednesday. "Obviously, if something's the matter with it, we anticipate getting it taken care of."
Ferlita said that for the most part, children do not have access to the posts that are made with arsenic.
Records show Tarpon Springs officials knew about high arsenic levels in the soil around Discovery Playground for more than a month before it closed the playground this week. The Times' test showed arsenic levels six times higher than the state's safety limit, so officials decided to close it for now.
But city records show that Tarpon Springs hired a company to test the playground in January, and learned in February its tests showed much higher arsenic levels than the Times' test.
"There's no coverup here, I can tell you that," said Paul Smith, the city's public services administrator. "I thought, this is elevated (levels), but it's not an immediate health risk."
Tarpon Springs tried to manage the problem by adding mulch, replacing sand and coating the wood with a sealant. The Consumer Products Safety Commission concluded years ago that sealants don't keep arsenic from leaching out of pressure-treated wood, but local officials weren't aware of that.
Gainesville grappled with a similar situation last year. Tests showed arsenic near a wooden playground at an elementary school. School officials tore it down. They hauled the playground and the contaminated soil to a lined landfill.
In Jacksonville, prodded by a county health official, the Duval County public schools ordered tests on eight elementary school playgrounds last summer. The results were a surprise, with the highest sample coming up at 96 times the state's safe limit.
School officials decided not to tear out the pressure-treated playground equipment. But when boards fall out, they replace them with untreated wood. And, gradually, they are switching to metal or plastic equipment.
Local government officials say they are waiting for some kind of direction from the state DEP or the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA considered an outright ban on CCA-treated wood 19 years ago, but instead allowed the industry to do a voluntary consumer awareness program.
People who buy pressure-treated lumber are supposed to get an information sheet, warning that they should wear a dust mask when sawing or sanding and wash their hands and clothes after working with the wood. Smoke from burning pressure-treated lumber can be life-threatening. But the sheets are rarely handed out.
And most people who buy backyard wooden playsets for their kids have no idea the wood contains arsenic.