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Park to remain open despite arsenic threat

A county Health Department official says there is little chance of being poisoned by tainted playground soil.

By DAN DeWITT

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 21, 2001


A county Health Department official says there is little chance of being poisoned by tainted playground soil.

BROOKSVILLE -- A recent report that arsenic from pressure-treated wood is seeping into the soil has prompted action in other parts of the state.

Playgrounds in Tarpon Springs and Tampa have been closed. In Crystal River, city officials are testing the soil not only at its playground but at other structures made of the rot-resistant lumber. Gov. Jeb Bush has called for the state's own wood-treatment plant to stop using arsenic.

The Brooksville City Council, however, declined to close Tom Varn Park or erect warning signs about elevated arsenic levels in the park's soil after being assured it posed no real threat.

Al Gray, environmental manager for the Hernando County Health Department, told the council Monday night that the chance of anyone's being poisoned there is virtually non-existent.

"Two-year-olds like to put their hands in their mouths, so they probably ingest some soil, but the amounts are very, very small," said Gray, who spoke to the council about the risks.

Tom Varn was one of five parks in the Tampa Bay area tested as part of a package of stories in the March 11 St. Petersburg Times (The poison in your back yard (March 11, 2001)). The independent company found 6.7 parts per million of arsenic in the soil beneath the wooden playground there -- nearly 10 times the amount the state considers safe in neighborhoods and nearly twice the acceptable level for industrial sites.

But Gray said this still represents a very small level of arsenic. Dangerous amounts of the poison cannot enter the body through the skin, he said. In a playground that has already been built, the most likely way for the poison to enter the body is by eating it. A state toxicologist estimated a child would have to eat more than a teaspoon of the soil per day for 30 years to develop cancer from arsenic, Gray said.

Few children go to the playground frequently enough to ingest large quantities of the contaminated soil, he said. Also, arsenic does not accumulate in the body over time, unlike toxic metals such as mercury and lead.

"If you look at all the factors," he said after his presentation, "(Evidence of risk) just isn't there."

Council member Joe Bernardini suggested at least putting warning signs at the park. He pointed out that other products, including cigarettes and alcoholic beverages, have warning labels. Also, he said, the council had recently worried about the liability to cars' mufflers if it installed speed bumps at the park.

A far more serious issue, children's health, "we've just kind of let slide," he said.

Other council members objected, saying warning signs were inappropriate because they did not see any threat.

Also, said Mayor Joe Johnston III after the meeting, the city pressure-washes and seals the wood regularly. City Manager Richard Anderson said the city also has bought some lumber not treated with arsenic to replace old wood at the playground as needed. It might coat some of the wood with protective paint that would seal the wood and add color to the park.

"I just brought this issue up to see if anyone was interested," Bernardini concluded at the meeting.

"If you're not interested, we can let it die right here -- along with the kids."

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