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Arsenic in ground has many secrets

Tarpon workers and experts say they were in "uncharted territory'' when faced with the question of how harmful arsenic was at Discovery Playground.


© St. Petersburg Times, published April 1, 2001

Tarpon workers and experts say they were in "uncharted territory" when faced with the question of how harmful arsenic was at Discovery Playground.

TARPON SPRINGS -- When city public works officials first heard that the St. Petersburg Times planned to test Discovery Playground for arsenic, they decided not to wait for the newspaper's findings.

After all, some of their own kids played there.

They found a laboratory in January to perform tests for the city. U.S. Biosystems of Tampa tested the soil around the balance beam, chain bridge, fire pole and spider web and found elevated levels of arsenic.

The test results came back early in February.

Like many public officials confronted with a potential hazard, Public Services Administrator Paul Smith, Public Services Director Juan Cruz and their colleagues were concerned.

But how concerned should they be?

They quickly discovered that there is no road map for dealing with arsenic that has leaked from pressure-treated wood into the soil at playgrounds. They heard different analyses from environmental experts, the playground's manufacturer and Web sites related to arsenic leaching.

"Who knows what the answer is?" Cruz said.

The city's tests at Discovery were taken in the soil where officials reasoned that any arsenic contamination was likely to be worst. The arsenic comes from chromated copper arsenate, or CCA, a powerful pesticide used to protect the wood.

By the playground's fire pole, the city tests found the soil had more than 17 times more arsenic than the state's safe limit for neighborhoods. Soil by the balance beam had 15 times more arsenic than the limit.

For the next several weeks, Smith talked to experts and performed his own research about the results. Then, as a precaution, city workers coated the wood with Seal-Krete sealer, added new mulch and replaced the sand in a sandbox. Bill Hinkley, who heads the solid and hazardous waste bureau at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, told them they were on the right track.

Hinkley points out that the possible effects of arsenic are well-known; it is a carcinogen, and ingesting large amounts can be fatal. What is not known with any certainty, he said, is the possible effect of arsenic that leaches into the soil.

"It isn't clear at all," he said. "We really are in uncharted territory here."

The Times published a story about arsenic at area playgrounds March 11, which detailed the potential dangers of arsenic in the soil at several playgrounds, including Discovery.

Prompted by the article, Smith called Hinkley again. Hinkley mentioned possible problems with splinters on the playground. Based on that new concern, as well as things mentioned in the newspaper article, the city decided to close the playground until the DEP completes tests there.

A subsequent front-page article in the Times, with the headline "Tarpon Springs knew of arsenic," prompted questions during last month's city elections. The story said the city had not closed the playground after receiving the initial test results in February. During the campaign, mayoral candidate Costa Vatikiotis asked why the city hadn't closed it sooner.

Cruz and Smith defended their decision, as did Mayor Frank DiDonato. Based on the information they had at the time, they said, they did everything they thought was necessary. After receiving more information, they decided to close the park.

"If anybody thinks for one moment that anybody in our profession would do something that would be detrimental to the kids, you've got to be out of your mind," Cruz said. "The city became proactive from the first phone call."

"We were told it's probably not harmful, but there's the element of an unknown," DiDonato said. "This is all new for all of us."

Hinkley said there is no guidebook for city officials to look at when making these decisions. He said he doesn't know if cities should close their playgrounds or not.

"I just don't know, and I don't know that anybody does," Hinkley said.

Since Tarpon Springs made its decision to close Discovery, some other parks have closed. Others, including Tom Varn Park in Brooksville, remain open.

City officials say Discovery Playground will reopen only if test results from DEP indicate that it is safe. Otherwise, Cruz said, the city would tear down the playground.

For Smith, decisions about the playground hit close to home. He has two daughters, ages 3 and 5, and they love Discovery Playground.

"It's their favorite place to play," he said. "I guess it personalizes the experience."

But as a civil servant and as a father, he doesn't know the right answer.

"I would like to think that things are okay. I would like to think that there's not a real risk associated with this wood," he said. "But you just have to be really cautious."

-- Staff writer Katherine Gazella can be reached at (727) 445-4182 or

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