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Arsenic level is deemed harmless

A playground where soil tests found high levels of arsenic is reopened. Officials say not enough of the element is present to harm children.

By CHRISTOPHER GOFFARD

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 28, 2001


TAMPA -- The Parks Department has reopened a playground at Al Lopez Park, dismissing fear of arsenic leaching into the soil from pressure-treated lumber.

While the city's own tests found arsenic levels up to 17.5 times higher than the state standard, Parks Director Ross Ferlita said visitors have nothing to fear.

"We feel like there's no immediate danger at all -- that's why we decided to reopen it," Ferlita said. The city's environmental consultants gave the go-ahead, though tests will continue on soil samples a distance from the wooden playground posts.

Ferlita said children would have to ingest large amounts of tainted soil over the course of years for the arsenic to hurt them. "You're talking a minute amount of arsenic," Ferlita said.

The reopened playground was a welcome sight to Stacey Finn, a teacher at the Caminiti Exceptional Center who accompanied a group of fourth- and fifth-graders there Tuesday.

"I'm trusting the city," Finn said.

The city closed the playground two weeks ago after the St. Petersburg Times reported elevated levels of arsenic leaching from pressure-treated wood into the soil of five playgrounds in the Tampa Bay area. In a test paid for by the newspaper, Thornton Labs found that soil samples taken 8 inches beneath the surface of the Al Lopez Park playground showed arsenic levels 11.6 times greater than the state's standards for residential soil.

The same lab, hired by the city, found arsenic levels there that varied widely, depending on the depth and location of the soil sample. A foot below one section of the playground, for example, soil contained 14 parts of arsenic per 1-million parts of soil. The state standard for arsenic is .8 parts per million.

At the same location 8 inches down, the tests found 10 parts per million of arsenic. At another location, 8 inches down, it found .4, with even smaller amounts a foot underground.

The city's environmental consultant, Nick Albergo, said he has eight children age 12 and under, so he is particularly sensitive to the safety of kids playing there. The arsenic "doesn't post an unacceptable risk to the children," he said.

Mark Ferrulo, director of Florida Public Interest Research Group, a non-profit environmental advocacy group, was unfamiliar with details of the Tampa playground but called for extreme caution in dealing with arsenic. "There should be zero exposure to arsenic, a known carcinogen, to young children," Ferrulo said. "To allow otherwise is to be putting people in jeopardy."

- Christopher Goffard can be reached at (813) 226-3337 or goffard@sptimes.com.

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