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Arsenic too little to close play area

Oldsmar says tests of soil and sand around wood equipment show arsenic levels too low to threaten kids at Friendship Playground.

By ED QUIOCO

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 18, 2001


Oldsmar says tests of soil and sand around wood equipment show arsenic levels too low to threaten kids at Friendship Playground.

OLDSMAR -- Arsenic levels at the city's Friendship Playground are too low to pose significant risk, so the playground will remain open, city officials have decided after receiving results of soil and sand tests.

The highest level of arsenic found at the waterfront playground was about half the level that the state Department of Health says could pose a health risk to children, tests revealed. The same was true when the city tested soil and sand samples taken from areas surrounding the playground at R.E. Olds Park.

"Realistically, I am comfortable with what's there and I don't think anybody should be concerned about it," said Lynn Rives, Oldsmar Parks and Recreation director. "From the information that I have been looking at, a kid would have to eat dirt forever to be hurt by it."

The city ordered tests in March after the St. Petersburg Times published a story about arsenic leaching from pressure-treated wood used to build other playgrounds in the Tampa Bay area. The arsenic comes from chromated copper arsenate, or CCA, a pesticide that's infused in the wood to make it last longer.

To be safe, when wooden parts of the volunteer-built playground have to be replaced, the city no longer will use wood with CCA, Rives said. The city also periodically will test the soil and sand to keep tabs on the arsenic levels.

"When you are dealing with kids, especially with kids, you want to make sure everything is right," Mayor Jerry Beverland said. "We need to protect them all we can."

The city received six to eight phone calls about Friendship Playground after news broke about the pressure-treated lumber, Rives said.

"And a few of those calls were not about the arsenic levels," Rives said. "They were worried about not being able to play in the playground. I think some people took it as not an issue."

The city hired Southern Analytical Laboratories in Oldsmar to perform the tests. The company tested five samples from the playground and six samples from areas surrounding the playground at the park. The highest levels that were found were 5.7 parts per million and 7.5 parts per million, Rives said.

In a news release last month, the state Department of Health said a risk to human health "may exist" when the arsenic concentration is "much higher" than 10 parts per million.

"As long as we are below that, we are okay," Rives said.

Arsenic is a compound that occurs naturally in soil. A pinch of pure arsenic can be fatal, and long-term exposure to the poison can cause cancer.

In response to the Times stories, state health officials said in a prepared statement that a child's risk of cancer "is unlikely to be increased" by playing at a playground with an arsenic level of 10 parts per million. That, they said, is because the time a child would spend playing on CCA-treated wood or in soil contaminated by arsenic would be too short to cause cancer, even if the child played at a contaminated site every day.

Other cities also have grappled with the issue. Clearwater and Tarpon Springs closed playgrounds after testing arsenic levels. Clearwater recently reopened the Long Center's Sunshine Playground after a city-hired consultant determined the arsenic levels were too low to pose a risk.

The issue is complicated for cities, Rives said, because the state lacks a standard for arsenic in playgrounds. Until a standard is created, Oldsmar will consider concentrations higher than 10 parts per million as the level of danger, Rives said.

That level is 12.5 times higher than 0.8 parts per million, which is the standard that the state Department of Environmental Protection has set for cleaning up contaminated soil in residential areas. But that's because people spend more time at their homes than at a playground, Rives said.

"If a child stayed on that playground for 24 hours a day their whole life, yeah, maybe they will be affected," Rives said. "But that is not going to happen."

- Staff writer Ed Quioco can be reached at (727) 445-4183 or quioco@sptimes.com.

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