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Fear of arsenic shuts playground

Test results prompt the closure, and officials at the Long Center are unsure how long it will last.

By CHRISTINA HEADRICK

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 4, 2001


Test results prompt the closure, and officials at the Long Center are unsure how long it will last.

CLEARWATER -- The Long Center's Sunshine Playground was closed and encircled with yellow caution tape Tuesday afternoon after tests of the soil under the playground showed nearly seven times the amount of arsenic the state considers safe.

Mark Abdo, the Long Center's executive director, said he had no idea how long the popular playground, shaped like a wooden fort, would remain closed.

"It could be a matter of days, a matter of weeks or longer," Abdo said. "This is very unfamiliar territory to us. I'm looking for someone to tell me this is dangerous, or don't tell me it's dangerous. It's like people could be alarmed, but then you don't have answers to give them."

Soil samples at the Sunshine Playground were taken just over a week ago, with the results reported late Monday to city officials.

The testing occurred after a Times report prompted concerns about high arsenic levels in the soil at other local playgrounds, all of which were constructed with wood treated with chromated copper arsenate. This pesticide, called CCA, is infused in the wood to make it more durable.

Signs were posted at the Long Center on Tuesday that read: "Based on a preliminary report, arsenic levels in the soil may exceed current state standards. The Long Center is temporarily closing the Sunshine Playground until environmental experts deem the facility safe."

The Long Center sports complex at 1501 N Belcher Road is run by a public-private partnership that is supported by the cities of Clearwater and Safety Harbor, Clearwater for Youth and the Upper Pinellas Association for Retarded Citizens.

The city owns the land under the center and the playground and paid for the soil testing.

Five soil samples were taken, said Kevin Dunbar, the city's parks and recreation director. They showed arsenic content that ranged from 1.4 parts per million at a ladder to 5.5 parts per million at the base of a playground slide.

The highest sample is nearly seven times what the state considers safe for residential areas, and about one-and-a-half times the arsenic allowed by the state in the soil at industrial cleanup sites.

Still, Dunbar noted, the levels were less than the amount of arsenic reported at some other area playgrounds, such as at Al Lopez Park's playground in Tampa, that were reopened to the public after testing.

"The next step is have a toxicologist read the numbers," Dunbar said. "Until then, it's prudent to close until further evaluation."

Long Center and city officials agreed that deciding what to do next may be difficult.

Chronic exposure to arsenic can cause cancer or other health problems. The main route of exposure from CCA-treated wood is hand-to-mouth, meaning people touch the wood or contaminated dirt and then their mouths.

The wood treatment industry has commissioned studies that found the use of the wood safe, and one state toxicologist has told the Times that a child might have to eat a spoonful of arsenic-contaminated dirt daily for 30 years to get cancer.

Meanwhile, state environmental regulators have said they don't have enough information yet to say for sure what risk, if any, the chemically treated wood poses to people.

Parents watching their children climb all over the Sunshine Playground on Tuesday afternoon, before they were politely asked to leave by Long Center officials, weren't sure what to think about the test results.

"For the short time we're here, I would think there wouldn't be a problem," said Denise Blodgett, who lives in the Atlanta area and brings her two sons and daughter to the playground whenever she visits her mother here.

"I've never read or seen anything about that, and we've been coming here for at least nine years."

Yelena Roshten, a Clearwater resident at the playground with her two daughters, said she didn't know enough about arsenic to gauge whether the levels that were reported were harmful. She could find another playground if she needs to, she said.

"But they like this one," she added. "My daughter says she wants to come play here, on the sand."

- Information from Times files was used in this report.

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